Hillary deserves the tough questions
Of the political pummeling Hillary Rodham Clinton endured at the presidential debate two weeks ago, it can be said she had it coming.
Riding high in national polls, Mrs. Clinton has been campaigning as if she doesn’t want voters to know what she would do as president. She has waffled, evaded, ducked, obfuscated, parsed and misled when pressed for answers on politically delicate issues such as Social Security and illegal immigration. And Slick Hilly — remember Slick Willie? — got away with it until the debate in Philadelphia, where she stumbled badly two months before the primary voting begins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Her aides portrayed Mrs. Clinton, the runaway front-runner coming into the debate, as the victim of a gang mugging — poor, defenseless Hillary being slapped around by a bunch of mean male bullies. If she was the victim of anything, it was of her own double talk. The Philadelphia event was exactly what a presidential debate should be. Candidates should face tough questions and be held accountable for their answers. Contrary to the post-debate spin of the Clinton campaign, it is not a personal attack or piling on when candidates aggressively grill and challenge each other on important issues facing the next president.
Voters don’t ask that much of their presidential candidates, just some honest answers and a sense of where they would take the nation if entrusted with the presidency. Sometimes Mrs. Clinton acts like her views are none of the voters’ business. How dare anyone try to interfere with her cakewalk to the nomination?
Mrs. Clinton is walking a political tightrope between the Democratic primary contest and the general election, between her party’s liberal interest groups and average voters. She lost her balance in Philadelphia. At some point she will have to take principled, even unpopular, positions and trust the voters to judge her fairly.
In Philadelphia, her Democratic rivals finally called Mrs. Clinton to account, exposing vulnerabilities that could be a problem for her in the 2008 general election. Barack Obama and John Edwards were her most aggressive challengers, accusing her of being untruthful, secretive and devious. Mrs. Clinton made their work easy.
When NBC’s Tim Russert, one of the debate moderators, asked Mrs. Clinton if she supported New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, the New York senator first suggested that she did. But when Chris Dodd said he opposed the plan, Mrs. Clinton tried to shift her position. “I did not say that it should be done,” Mrs. Clinton interrupted.
Mr. Russert reminded her that she had told a New Hampshire newspaper that Spitzer’s plan made “a lot of sense” and asked her to clarify her position.
She refused, saying, “You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha.” Mr. Edwards pounced. “Unless I missed something,” he said, “Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes. America is looking for a president who will say the same thing, who will be consistent, who will be straight with them.” Mr. Obama weighed in, making it clear he didn’t think Mrs. Clinton measured up to that standard. “She has not been truthful and clear,” he said.
Mr. Russert pressed Mrs. Clinton to clarify her position on raising the cap on Social Security taxes. She recently told an Iowa voter in a private conversation, overheard by an Associated Press reporter, that she was open to increasing payroll taxes on wealthy Americans. But she told Mr. Russert, “I do not advocate it. I do not support it.” Well, which is it? On another matter, the former first lady was asked if she would release her correspondence with the president, papers locked away at Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Ark. The former president asked the National Archives not to release any of those documents until 2012.
She first said she had approved release of the papers, a claim that national archivists dispute. Then she said releasing the papers was “not my decision to make.” Mr. Obama took the opening: “We have just gone through one of the most secretive administrations in our history, and not releasing, I think, these records at the same time, Hillary, that you’re making the claim that this is the basis for your experience, I think, is a problem.”
Meanwhile, the Clinton Spin Machine has been working overtime on damage control, claiming, among other things, that the beating she took at the debate will only strengthen her appeal to women voters. Please, not the gender card. Don’t tell us that the candidate who touts her toughness, who says she is ready to stand up to tyrants and terrorists, is just a helpless woman who can be pushed around by the likes of Tim Russert or John Edwards.
Does any of it really matter? Only to voters who believe it is not too much to expect presidential candidates to level with them.
Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.