Hillary Clinton was so close to the top of the greasy pole until that Democratic debate. True, even in the original English version of the country fair contest, no climbers are allowed to grab the prize on their first attempt. American political primaries seem to impose a similar restriction, requiring a fall or two by the front-runners. But it was not the rules that denied the prize to Hillary. It was her debate performance, best described by the Washington Post as a "night of fumbles." She fudged replies on Social Security, the release of documents from her husband's administration, and most strikingly on issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. At first, she seemed to defend the proposal, then she suggested she was against it, and finally, when pressed for a direct answer, she accused the moderator of playing "gotcha." Politically, it seemed that she was trying to have it both ways, looking to placate the Hispanic vote without offending the majority in the country who oppose licenses for illegals.
For the first time in what has been a very disciplined campaign, Clinton looked vulnerable, overly political, evasive, and expedient. The focus shifted from her knowledge, strength, experience, and authority to questions about her sincerity, integrity, and electability. President Clinton did not help matters when he ludicrously compared her opponents' tactics with the "Swift Boat" campaign against John Kerry.
Senator Clinton retains a commanding lead within the Democratic Party, but her margin over Barack Obama plunged from 30 percentage points to 19. The sense of the inevitability of her nomination has been put in doubt.
Iraq unease. On the dominant issue today, the war in Iraq, Clinton is vulnerable as well, in part because of the Democratic lurch to the left on foreign policy. Once, only those Democrats who voted for the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991 were seen as credible leaders. But the failure in Iraq II has given a different perspective and sent most of the Democrats running. Clinton's defense is that her vote authorizing the war was meant only to strengthen Bush's hand with the United Nations and permit war if diplomacy failed. The rationale is not convincing because she voted against an amendment from Sen. Carl Levin to the war resolution that would have forced the president to come back to Congress before declaring war. So her shift today to opposition to the war troubles many in the Democratic Party.
The net effect is to have the media and some of the public focusing on her negatives. In a recent Zogby poll, 50 percent said they would never vote for her to be president—the highest negative rating among all the candidates.
Do these stumbles matter against her consistent record? She has a quarter century of national political experience; a grasp of policy that makes the other Democratic contenders look shallow or uninformed; a willingness to work unbelievably hard; a prodigious memory; and a formidable campaign machine, including fundraisers who have brought her an overflowing war chest. She has not just name recognition but star power. She has the support of most of her party's most important constituencies, including blue-collar workers, blacks, and a legion of women, many of whom would like her to break America's highest glass ceiling. She has the benefit of her husband's political skills—not to mention the ability to evoke the peace and prosperity of his term.
That last one is tricky, though, and gets at part of her problem. His perceived success now has helped her up the greasy pole, but she slips whenever anyone remembers the caricatures of her initial years as first lady: as a left-wing partisan who looked down on stay-at-home moms. Her loyalty to her straying husband gave some the sense that she stayed simply to pursue her political ambitions.
Once Clinton entered the Senate, she demonstrated that she is by and large an unscary centrist. In fact, even when she was first lady, she was never the radical she was caricatured to be. She supported welfare reform; she was pro-business, deeply religious—describing abortion as "a tragic choice"—and was and remains deeply committed to public service. Day in, day out, she exudes an air of confidence and clear speech, combined with the total command of facts that creates an aura of authority. All of which stands in contrast to President Bush.
The big danger for her is the growing perception that she is becoming the issue. An almost certain win on a referendum on the Bush administration's incompetence could be turned into a loss if the election became a vote on the personality and character of the Democratic candidate. Her challenge is now to refocus the debate. She has to present herself with the candor and clarity on the major issues that would entitle her to be seen as the fresh alternative and change agent to a failed administration.