Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
What did the umpteenth Democratic presidential debate, held in Nevada on Tuesday night, demonstrate? That Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton each need a nap. The trio looked worn out. Perhaps that was why few punches were thrown. The Iraq war, the politics of race, tears (or near tears)--the Democratic contest had become rather heated in recent days. Clinton, using misleading information, had accused Obama of being a disingenuous hypocrite regarding the war. Obama's camp had seized on a comment Clinton had made to Fox News and assailed her for supposedly dissing Martin Luther King Jr. And Edwards had snidely insinuated Clinton might not be strong enough to be president (after she became emotional at a campaign stop in New Hampshire). It was getting nasty.
But in Las Vegas, there was relative calm. And no one hit the jackpot.
Senator Hillary Clinton appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, for the entire show, and asserted once again that Senator Barack Obama's rhetoric does not match the reality of his record. Referring to voters, she remarked, "I want them to have accurate information about our respective records." Yet moments later, Clinton, ostensibly providing voters with information about Obama's record, falsely characterized what Obama had once said about Saddam Hussein--to make it seem that prior to the war Obama was weak on Saddam.
During the show, Tim Russert brought up Clinton's vote in October 2002 for the legislation authorizing George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq, and he quoted a speech Obama gave at that time:
I know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors....I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than the best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.
Russert then asked Clinton, "Who had the better judgment at that time?" Meaning you or him.
Clinton insisted that her support for the war resolution had been merely a vote to pressure the Iraqi dictator to allow weapons inspectors into Iraq. She quickly moved on to attack Obama:
And in Senator Obama's recent book, he clearly says he thought that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons, and that he still coveted nuclear weapons. His judgment was that, at the time in 2002, we didn't need to make any efforts. My belief was we did need to pin Saddam down, put inspectors in.
You can read it in his own book, Clinton was saying: Obama didn't want to do anything to stop Saddam, even though he feared that Saddam did possess chemical and biological weapons.
That was one helluva charge. Obama was willing to sit back and let a WMD-toting dictator go along on his merry own way (while Clinton was doing what she could to pin down that snake). Could this be true? Had Obama been a do-nothing appeaser of Saddam in 2002? (Forget for a moment that it turned out Saddam had zilch in the WMD department at the time.) I emailed Howard Wolfson, the communications director for the Clinton campaign, and asked for a citation to back up this incendiary allegation. He quickly replied, directing me to page 294 of Obama's Audacity of Hope.
Last night--that is, at 1:30 in the morning--I ran into a top Hillary Clinton adviser at the bar in the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire. She was beaming. Earlier in the day, she had said to me, "I'm just praying the spread is 9.9 percent"--meaning she was hoping that Barack Obama would not win by double digits. Well, that was then. Joking, I said that I could imagine Clinton sending Mark Penn, her chief strategist, a telegram that said, "Stop. Come back. Stop. All is forgiven. Stop." Her eye opened wide and she exclaimed, "Oh, I hope not." Clinton's narrow victory in New Hampshire, she said, was not a vindication, but a warning. "We still need to retool," she explained. "This is not over." Clinton would have to change plenty from here on: be more open to the media, not be so over-handled. New Hampshire, she added, had been a near-death experience for Hillary Clinton. "We need to learn from our mistakes," she said. This aide was hoping for big changes within the Clinton campaign. Will that come? I asked. "You never know, politics can be unpredictable," she said with a smile.
Throughout the morning, afternoon, and early evening of Election Day in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton aides looked grim and gloomily moaned about a campaign that appeared to have been derailed, if not defeated. Expecting to lose by as much as 10 points, they wondered aloud what could be done to stop Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed "hope-monger," who only days earlier had seemingly rewritten modern American politics. Then the actual results started coming in, and Clinton was reborn. After being trounced in Iowa, the wife of the "comeback kid" of 1992 had managed a resurrection far more impressive than her spouse had achieved sixteen years earlier. He had merely overcome news of an extramarital affair; she had beaten back a new brand of politics.
Her surprising win—based partly on a strong performance among women and working-class voters—came after she had spent days decrying Obama's lack of experience (a legitimate point) and denouncing him as a hypocrite (not a legitimate point). With Clinton's victory, the main question of the Democratic race returns to what it had been prior to Iowa: can he beat her? But the small 3-percent margin in her favor suggested that the battle between her conventional politics and his unconventional politics has not been definitively resolved.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and Clinton have been operating on two different levels. Her playbook has been by-the-numbers: bash the Bush administration, offer red-meat policy proposals, sell her experience, talents, and strength—and, of course, raise tons of money and assemble a powerhouse organization. Obama has done all of that but within a different context. At the start, he and his advisers took one big step back and tried to envision what the electorate would be yearning for in 2008—not just the Democrats but also independents and those Republicans who did not fancy the taste of the Bush-Cheney Kool-Aid.
Clinton was practicing standard supply-side politics: push the candidate. Obama was looking at the demand side. He and his aides believed there was a desire for a break from politics as usual. After all, there had been a decade and a half of bitter politics, as well as several years of governmental incompetence (and worse), care of the Bush administration. Opinion polls suggested deep popular dissatisfaction with the state and future of the country. The Iraq War—and its unending fallout—had soured many independents and some Republicans. And the current regime was not doing much for anyone worried about economic security, health care, or global warming. So for many Americans, the government wasn't working, and the political system was broken. They wanted change. For a potential national candidate, what was the answer? A candidacy that offered solutions and leadership that would transcend the same-old/same-old. That was Obama's theory: give 'em both a platform and, yes, hope.
In Iowa, it worked. Obama attracted newcomers to politics. He persuaded people that he had character, root principles, and the desire (if not the ability) to rise above the bickering of Washington to accomplish grand goals—that by electing him the voters themselves could be implementers of profound change. (A President Obama certainly would represent more change than a second President Clinton.) He offered them not merely a choice but the chance to be part of a cause.
In New Hampshire, his crusade crashed into prosaic political reality. Though the state—with its high percentage of upscale and well-educated voters—seemed ready-made for another Obama triumph, the Clintons had deep roots there (which was not the case in Iowa). And after being upset in Iowa, the Clinton campaign focused on its core supporters. "At Clinton headquarters, it was all women all the time," said one Democratic official. And exit polls showed that women made up 57 percent of the Democratic vote and broke dramatically for Clinton.
Last night, at a rally near the Manchester airport, Hillary Clinton packed 'em in. A thousand or so people listened to her deliver a long speech outlining virtually every policy position she has ever mentioned during the campaign. On one level, it was an impressive performance. She demonstrated a command of policy and facts. She spoke passionately about her intellectual passions. On another level, it was, perhaps, too much too late. As at least two reporters in the room --including Mickey Kaus--quipped, it seemed she was delivering a State of the Union speech, particularly the sort that her husband use to give. Remember how he would go over a long laundry list of policy proposals? One of the biggest cheers of the night came when she said that if elected president she would make sure the federal student aide form wouldn't be too long.
This was as good as she gets. The crowd was pumped--though it did lose some energy as she went on and on. (And on Election Day eve, you don't want to tire out supporters who have to get up early the next morning and start working for you.) She pointed out that she was the candidate who was strong enough and experienced enough to deliver the change that the American electorate yearns for. But she took no pot shots at her opponents. "Time to tell her story," a Clinton aide said to me.
It's not such a bad story. And did the size of the crowd indicate she might just be able to pull out a win in New Hampshire? Once upon a time--that would be sixteen years ago--another Clinton became the self-proclaimed "comeback kid" of New Hampshire. (That was after placing second in New Hampshire. Talk about chutzpah!) There's no reporter in New Hampshire I've spoken to who thinks that HRC can pull it out. Instead, we discuss how big Barack Obama's win will be--and what the point spread will mean. Some political commentators claim that if Clinton can hold him to a 6-point or less win, she can claim a moral victory. I dunno. Seems to me that whatever the win is, as long as it's more than a close call, the important statistic will be this: 2 for 2.