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The resort to Bush-bashing was Clinton's safety net in the Oct. 30 debate, the place she could go to deflect her opponents' attacks. But those attacks are likely to grow more intense as the campaign winds toward its Jan. 3 climax in the Iowa caucuses and the questions of who Clinton is, what she really believes and whether the Democratic Party really wants to return to the pragmatic "balance" of Clintonism will be front and center. This is still a close campaign, at least in Iowa, where the traditionally undependable polls have Clinton with a lead over Obama, and Edwards trending down to third place. Clinton was actually eager to review with me the attacks against her in the debate because those are the issues and the perceptions about her personality that she'll have to confront in the next two months.
The debate seemed a signpost: the beginning of the real campaign after more than a year of fund-raising and inside baseball. And her performance seemed a crystallization of the problems that have always plagued Clinton, the notion that she is perpetually calculating, triangulating and cold, without core convictions. On the other hand, in several dozen interviews over a weekend in Iowa, I simply couldn't find anyone who had actually seen the debate not even among the political junkies who attend her meetings. Clinton's public demeanor at these rallies suggested that she had taken the punch and moved on, even if her campaign briefly made the mistake of playing the gender-victim card in a clunky webcast called The Politics of Pile-On, which showed all the boys repeatedly attacking her. "Look, I was not as artful or as well spoken as I could have or should have been, so I take responsibility for that," she told me. "But I think there's also the realization ... that we've got difficult, difficult problems. I think Americans are ready for substance. I think they want to get beyond the 30 seconds [of debate answers], and I think they want to get beyond a President who had never a doubt, never a sense of complexity, never really shared his thinking about anything with them to say, 'Well, look, this is where we are, here's where we have to get, here's how difficult it is, here's what I need you to do.'"
Actually, Clinton's debate performances and her candidacy don't seem quite so cautious or fudgy when you look at the transcript or travel with her on the trail. Her worst moments have come when she has tried to have it both ways on programs proposed by fellow New York Democrats. This is a too-clever-by-a-lot tendency she shares with her husband: the hope that she can admire untenable proposals made by other Democrats like the recent tax reform proposed by Congressman Charles Rangel and Governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to give illegal immigrants driver's licenses without actually supporting them. She was caught on the latter in the debate and roundly hammered. But this sort of fudgery is not unusual among politicians. Edwards took the same admiring-but-not-quite-supporting position on driver's licenses when he was interviewed by ABC's George Stephanopoulos a few days later. In fact, other Democrats except Christopher Dodd, who flat-out opposed the idea seemed prohibitively chuckleheaded on this issue: it is hard to imagine why a recent illegal immigrant, unfamiliar with U.S. roads and driving practices, would come forward to get a driver's license just so that he or she could be held liable in the event of an accident.
The propensity of Democrats to be chuckleheaded in ways easily exploited by Republicans is what Clinton, in most cases, is trying to avoid with her lawyerly answers. Her refusal to support higher Social Security taxes on the wealthy is a perfect example. "For the life of me, I don't understand what my opponents are trying to achieve," she said. "It is potentially a trillion-dollar tax increase." Clinton's point seems solid on several grounds. There are higher priorities than Social Security in 2008, especially if you want to enact universal health insurance or a real energy-independence plan, both of which will require revenue increases. And why start the negotiations now, in the Democratic primary? History shows, as Clinton attests, that the best way to deal with this issue is through a bipartisan commission, where both sides can share the blame for doing the right thing.