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In The Midst of McCain-Obama Iraq Sparring, A Debate Flashback: Did BriWi Step On Hillary's Line?

Huffington Post   First Posted: 03/28/08 03:46 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:25 PM ET

Briwi Hrc Debate

I wrote yesterday of the sparring between John McCain and Barack Obama, after McCain jumped on a remark Obama made during Tuesday night's debate in Cleveland. The spat has gotten major coverage over the past few days since then, and in addition to opening up debate about the respective foreign policy chops of Obama and John McCain, it has also been cast as the first real head-to-head for the candidates and as such, a preview of the potential general election. All of this is bad for Hillary Clinton for a few reasons: 1. It's a lot of face time for Obama, who has had a chance to show off some strong statements on the Iraq war (and have the networks show them off, again and again in instant replay form); 2. It casts Obama in the role of de facto opponent to McCain, the de facto Republican nominee. Which makes this skirmish the first de facto faceoff of the general election — and she ain't part of it. 3. No one is asking her opinion on what she would do, if she knew that al Qaeda in Iraq was different than al Qaeda from September 11th. It's not an ideal situation in these all-important days leading up to the March 4th primaries.

A quick recap: In the debate, Obama answered a question from Tim Russert about whether an Obama administration would re-invade Iraq if al Qaeda "resurged," and Obama answered in part like so: "[I]f al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad." (See the full transcript here.) You know the rest: McCain schooled Obama saying al Qaeda was already in Iraq; Obama schooled him back, noting that "al Qaeda in Iraqa" did not exist pre-invasion.

Here's what I noted yesterday as a postscript to my post:

NB: By the way, this is classic Obama, turning a gaffe into a victory, like he did the other night with the Farrakhan question. He was wrong initially about al Qaeda being in Iraq -- presumably he was going for a slightly different interpretation, but he did misspeak.* This is also turning out to be classic Clinton, who has been left out of this exchange and missed her opportunity to jump on Obama's gaffe.

But did she miss the opportunity — or was it missed for her? I went back to the transcript to see what her response had been after the remark and lo and behold, she had tried to pipe up after — but it was at that point that moderator Brian Williams insisted on breaking for a commercial, saying "television doesn't stop." He told her to "hold that thought" — but when they came back from commercial, Williams kicked off with a change of subject and a question for...Obama.

See the transcript here:

SEN. OBAMA: ...Now, I always reserve the right for the president -- as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that's true in other places. That's part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9/11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

MR. WILLIAMS: And Senator, I need to reserve --

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but I have -- I just have to add --

MR. WILLIAMS: I'm sorry, Senator, I've got to --

SEN. CLINTON: Now wait a minute, I have to add --

MR. WILLIAMS: I've got to get us to a break because television doesn't stop.

SEN. CLINTON: -- because the question -- the question was about invading -- invading -- Iraq.

MR. WILLIAMS: Can you hold that thought until we come back from a break? We have limited commercial interruptions tonight, and we have to get to one of them now. Despite the snowstorm swirling outside here in Cleveland, we're having a warm night in the arena. We'll return to it right after this. (Laughter, applause.)

Let's be clear here: First, I have no idea what Senator Clinton was going to say here. Second, whatever she was going to say she was free to raise at a later time. Third, I don't think Clinton has complained about the episode (not publicly, anyway). But in light of the hay made by McCain — and then Obama — over that remark, it's worth looking noting that this moment happened — especially if people like me are going to assert that she missed an opportunity.

But, television doesn't stop. Or does it? I wasn't sure so I asked. NBC spokeswoman Allison Gollust confirmed that while the decision to go to commercial break had not been determined by a hard break (i.e. a timed, scheduled cut to commercial), it fell to the moderator to make that call. "As the moderator it's Brian's job to keep the conversation moving and in a live TV environment it's important to do that," said Gollust, who noted that it was a 90 minute event with only two breaks, and the first segment had already gone longer than planned. Said Gollust: "There were two opportunities for a break and someone had to make sure that we got there." Williams said himself that "our first segment went long" when they returned from the break; that said, it was up to Williams how long, and by how much, and until when.

This post is pure conjecture — like I said, I have no idea if Clinton would have picked up on Obama's statement like John McCain did, no idea what it was she wanted to say but couldn't because television doesn't stop. I just thought it was worth checking the record to see what her reaction was. I guess we won't know — maybe she totally didn't notice it, because otherwise she could have dropped it later on; or maybe she didn't want to bother because the break had passed, the subject had changed and the moment was lost. And if the moment had just been one of many that passed during a 90-minute debate, it probably wouldn't have mattered. But, the fact remains that Senator Clinton was cut off after Obama spoke, told to hold her thought, and then was not invited to express it — on a matter that subsequently became a big deal between Obama and McCain. In a campaign as scrutinized as this one, it's just one more hair to split (hello, commenters!) but in light of what followed, I do feel like it's worth noting. Blogs have a bit more patience than TV.

The transcript is after the jump; decide for yourself. Here's the video:







*I maintain that Obama did misspeak here, because whether or not al Qaeda has much of a presence in Iraq the 2 - 15% of the insurgency that al Qaeda in Iraq can obviously be construed as a "base." So, at best Obama's statement needed clarification and at worst it betrayed confusion on his part.




Full transcript of episode:

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama, I want you to respond to not holding oversight for your subcommittee. But also, do you reserve a right as American president to go back into Iraq, once you have withdrawn, with sizable troops in order to quell any kind of insurrection or civil war?


SEN. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I became chairman of this committee at the beginning of this campaign, at the beginning of 2007. So it is true that we haven't had oversight hearings on Afghanistan.

I have been very clear in talking to the American people about what I would do with respect to Afghanistan.

I think we have to have more troops there to bolster the NATO effort. I think we have to show that we are not maintaining permanent bases in Iraq because Secretary Gates, our current Defense secretary, indicated that we are getting resistance from our allies to put more troops into Afghanistan because they continue to believe that we made a blunder in Iraq and I think even this administration acknowledges now that they are hampered now in doing what we need to do in Afghanistan in part because of what's happened in Iraq.

Now, I always reserve the right for the president -- as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that's true in other places. That's part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9/11, it is my job -- it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

MR. WILLIAMS: And Senator, I need to reserve --

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but I have -- I just have to add --

MR. WILLIAMS: I'm sorry, Senator, I've got to --

SEN. CLINTON: Now wait a minute, I have to add --

MR. WILLIAMS: I've got to get us to a break because television doesn't stop.

SEN. CLINTON: -- because the question -- the question was about invading -- invading -- Iraq.

MR. WILLIAMS: Can you hold that thought until we come back from a break? We have limited commercial interruptions tonight, and we have to get to one of them now. Despite the snowstorm swirling outside here in Cleveland, we're having a warm night in the arena. We'll return to it right after this. (Laughter, applause.)

Here is the return from break:


MR. WILLIAMS: We are back, and because our first segment went long and we are in a large arena -- (cheers, applause) --

AUDIENCE MEMBER: (Off mike) -- for Hillary!

MR. WILLIAMS: -- we are just now welcoming back both of our candidates to the stage and asking our cooperation of the audience.

We're back live tonight in Cleveland, Ohio.

Senator Obama, we started tonight talking about what could be construed as a little hyperbole. Happens from time to time on the campaign trail. You have recently been called out on some yourself. I urge you to look at your monitor and we'll take a look.


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