Volume 77 / Number 40 - March 5 - 11, 2008
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Talking Point

The comfort level: What separates Obama and Clinton

By Ben Goddard

The favorite game of pundits recently was “Which Hillary will show up at the Ohio debate?” Even the very mainstream David Gregory got into that mode on MSNBC when a Clinton supporter predicted the candidate would “just be herself.” “I don’t mean to be cynical about this, but which self?” was Gregory’s response.

Hillary the fighter took the stage in Ohio, determined to show that she alone had what it took to be commander in chief. She’d promised that is what she would do. It has been the underlying theme of her campaign from Day One and her mission was to demonstrate that fact to America. She was ready to tangle with Barack Obama on the issues and even Brian Williams and Tim Russert over how they ran the show.

America saw Hillary the fighter — and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Senator Clinton was tight-lipped, a little stiff in her body language and occasionally bordered on shrill when on the attack. The message most voters took away from the debate was that Hillary hit Obama with everything she had — and that it wasn’t enough. At the end of the evening there was little doubt that Obama could handle John McCain, the Republican attack machine and whatever enemies he’ll face in the White House, be they foreign or domestic. So much for the argument that the Illinois senator is not ready to be president.

In the first 16 minutes of the discussion on healthcare, which neither candidate let the moderators interrupt, she failed to show a dominating command of the issue. Her “traditional Democratic value” argument for mandates has grown a little stale. Listening to the two of them debate the minutiae of healthcare reform left the impression that both want the same goal; they disagree only on the details of how we get there and both have sensible arguments.

No matter that Clinton has spent a lot of time talking to business, consumer groups and insurers in drafting this plan; it was hard to forget the my-way-or-the-highway approach she took 15 years ago when she launched the first Clinton healthcare reform fight. I don’t believe she serves herself well by continually reminding people that she didn’t budge back then and won’t budge now. Yes, Americans rank healthcare reform as one of the top two or three issues in 2008, depending on how and when you ask the question. But just as in 1993-’94 they are less concerned with the details than that something be done. Obama made his case that he’ll take action. That’s all people want. So on healthcare details, I call it a draw. In terms of tone, the decision goes to Obama. Nobody wants a repeat of the 1993-’94 debate that tore apart the Democratic Party and produced no reform at all.

On the other two big issues in this campaign, the economy and Iraq, Obama and Clinton pretty much debated to a draw. Both took some hits for contradictions on NAFTA, Ohio’s big issue. Iraq was more of the same except for Obama’s newly minted line that there is a difference between trying to get the bus out of the ditch and driving it there in the first place. It made clear why their recent Senate votes have been so similar but reinforced his argument that she was with George Bush on the war “from Day One.”

So, as is usually the case with television, the most recent debate comes down to who struck the responsive chord — who was “cool” and who was “hot” in classic McLuhan media terms. That is where Obama scored points in this round.

Just as she drew boos for her “change you can Xerox” line in Texas, Clinton got a negative reaction to her “SNL” reference to the media coddling Obama. Both lines in both debates were contrived, awkward and made viewers feel uncomfortable. Obama, on the other hand, rather deftly suggested Clinton was whining without making a big deal of it. Television loves finesse and Barack Obama showed he has it.

The subliminal question answered in this debate was “Who do you want to spend the next four years listening to?” Viewers get the message — there is very little daylight between the two on the issues. So — if the policies are the same, if Obama can stand up to the best Hillary and her husband can throw at him, why not vote for the guy you’d like to have dropping by your living room the next four years?

Goddard, working for the health-insurance industry, was the mind behind the “Harry and Louise” campaign that galvanized opinion against the Clinton healthcare plan in 1994. He is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.

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