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Why Hillary Clinton Was the Winner of the Democratic Debate

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Last night on CNN, I said that Hillary Clinton was the winner of the Democratic debate.

This morning, during a Creative Coalition-sponsored panel at the Radisson Hotel in New Hampshire, Lawrence O'Donnell, who was moderating, asked me if, after a good night's sleep, I wanted to "revise and extend" my remarks.

No, I don't want to revise my remarks. I want to extend them.

Hillary Clinton won because she arrived at the debate as the front-runner -- with a widening lead in national polls -- and left the debate with her position solidified. Her success was due in part to what she did during the debate, and in part to what Barack Obama failed to do.

She came across as more comfortable in her own skin, and more natural and less programmed than in the past. And she exhibited an effortless charm that those close to her often rave about but that the public rarely sees. She even scored two of the biggest laughs of the night with her zinger about Dick Cheney's diplomatic skills, and her use of Barry Goldwater's "shoot straight" line about gays in the military.

She was particularly effective in achieving her campaign's foremost objective: blurring the differences between her and her opponents on Iraq. "The differences among us are minor," she said of her fellow candidates. "The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don't want anybody in America to be confused."

This successful blurring of differences was made possible by Obama's failure to challenge Clinton's statements about the war -- something that he could have easily done since the contradictions in her positions were front and center in the news yesterday, in a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. He could have raised substantive points, undermining her claims without in any way tarnishing his "new kind of politics" patina.

For instance, he could have questioned Hillary's claim that when she voted to authorize the war, she was actually voting to strengthen Bush's hand so he could pursue diplomacy, by pointing out that she had voted against an amendment put forth by Carl Levin that would have required Bush to exhaust all diplomatic approaches before invading Iraq. And he could have pressed the question of why Clinton had voted to authorize the war without reading the full National Intelligence Estimate. Doing so would have been no different in tone than his counterpunch comment that John Edwards had been "four and a half years late on leadership" on Iraq -- which was Obama's debate high point.

Obama also let Clinton get away with making the astounding claim that "we are safer than we were" before 9/11 -- something that is simply not true. Indeed, the fact that Bush's policies at home and abroad have left us less safe will certainly be a key line of attack for any Democratic campaign that hopes to succeed in 2008. And, again, Obama could have challenged Clinton on this without sullying his image. He could even have presented it as a rhetorical question: How can anyone truly believe we are safer in light of a) official reports that Iraq has become a prime recruitment tool for terrorists b) the spread of anti-American feeling worldwide, and c) how the war in Iraq has diverted hundreds of billions of dollars that could otherwise could have been spent shoring up security at our nation's railways, ports, and chemical plants.

Nothing in that line of argument would have damaged Obama's standing as a unifer and a candidate of hope. Hope is not contradictory to truth telling. And the truth is that we are not safer. Period. And the over-hyped arrest of a near-indigent loner who dreamed of blowing up JFK doesn't change that.

Hillary Clinton's strategy is to rise above the Democratic fray and keep the focus on George Bush. And that's a good strategy for a front-runner.

Barack Obama's strategy also appears to be rising above the fray. But that is no way to unseat a front-runner. Iraq is Hillary's Achilles heel. But it will become less and less so if Obama keeps letting her off the hook on the war and on national security.

The point isn't just how Clinton voted in 2002, but how she is thinking in 2007. If she really believes that we are safer now than we were before Bush invaded Iraq, she is seriously misguided -- and is on the wrong side of the national security debate that will undoubtedly be at the heart of the 2008 election.

In the spin room after the debate, David Axelrod, Obama's chief media strategist, told reporters that debates like last night's are part of a larger sequence -- and that there is still a long time to go before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. And it's certainly true that Obama still has plenty of time to differentiate his position on the war and national security from Hillary's. But he'd better get started -- and stop leaving choice opportunities on the table.

Update: The Obama campaign issued a press release Monday afternoon, "America is not safer since 9/11."