The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.
Welcome to the CNBC/Wall Street Journal Republican Debate! At last, a debate with a start time that means kids won't have to go to bed before it's over. Will we ever again see those glory days when kids sit in their classrooms, surreptitiously listening to afternoon presidential debates on transistor radios? Probably not, but a 4:00 opening question is close enough.
First a few random thoughts: Mike Huckabee has a way of making you sit there and nod in agreement even when he's not really saying anything...Who's ready for Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani to star in one of those road trip-buddy movies where they hate each other at the beginning of the cross-country journey and then are best friends by the time it's over? I'm thinking Midnight Run meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles...Speaking of Mitt, did you ever get the feeling that he would still have that same small smile glued to his face even if he was telling the grandkids that their dog has just been hit by a car?...John McCain wants to go after Osama Bin Laden by creating "an organization that was not unlike the OSS in World War II," to go after him. Umm, Senator? An organization was created that was supposed to be like the WW II OSS spy agency. It's called the CIA...At last! Ron Paul has an audience that might be interested in hearing about the gold standard! And he won't let it go!...Tom Tancredo--try saying each word one at a time. It makes speaking a lot easier...Duncan Hunter used the phrase, "communist China" so many times I had to check my calendar to make sure I hadn't accidentally time-travelled back to 1951...Senator Brownback wins the jam-all-my-issues-in-no-matter-what prize for dropping his pro-life stance into a question about supporting the eventual party nominee...Please direct all global warming questions to Fred Thompson, as he has apparently mastered the art of energy conservation.
Who won the debate? It's hard to say. No one stood head and shoulders above the rest. No one was beyond abysmal (okay, Fred came close). Maybe, though, in an odd way, the real winner was someone who wasn't there.
That would be Hillary Clinton. Her name was mentioned thirteen times during the debate (for good measure, Giuliani threw in Bill Clinton three times). No other Democratic candidate was named except for Joe Biden, and that was only because Sam Brownback mentioned him in reference to the Iraq plan they co-sponsored. The word "education" was mentioned only three times, even though this is certainly an economic issue. But Hillary hit double digits.
The most obvious reason for mentioning Hillary Clinton is to play a bit of an obvious psychological trick. If you discuss Hillary Clinton in your answer, that means, because she is the current Democratic frontrunner, you are thinking about the general election. If you appear to be thinking about the general election, that means you are confident that you are going to win the GOP nomination. And if you keep pounding this idea enough, maybe people will begin to believe you are, and wanting to back a winner, will back you too. It's a way of convincing people that your nomination is a done deal.
The other reason, though, is because over the last decade or so, Hillary Clinton has become a most convenient scare tactic for the Republicans. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey's character, Verbal, gives a speech about the ruthless criminal Keyser Soze. Here's a quote:
He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. "Rat on your pop and Keyser Soze will get you." But no one ever really believes. Keaton always said, "I don't believe in God, but I'm afraid of him." Well, I believe in God -- and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.
Swap in "she" for "he" and "Hillary Clinton" for Keyser Soze and you have a pretty good idea of how the Republicans use Hillary Clinton to rally the troops. This is nothing new of course--in the mid-90s the Democrats used Newt Gingrich as the "Boo!" inside the Halloween card. But the Republican candidates have raised it to a new art form, whipping out the Hillary adjective whenever they want to frighten an audience. Here are some examples:
Rudy Giuliani spoke about her in his answer to a question about attacking Iranian nuclear facilities: "She was asked, would you take a strong position that Iran will not be allowed to become nuclear and that we would use a military option if we had to? And she didn't answer the question."
Translation: if you don't nominate a Republican like me who can defeat Hillary Clinton, she will lead us into Armageddon.
In a question about how the Republicans can win back confidence that they can manage the economy, Mitt Romney said," And vis-a-vis meeting with most likely Hillary Clinton, I can't wait to talk about the fact that I spent my life in the economy. I understand how jobs come and why they go."
Translation: If you don't nominate a Republican like me who understands the economy and how jobs come and go, Hillary Clinton will lead us into another Great Depression.
Giuliani answered the same question: "The possibilities for America in this global economy are endless if we don't put a lid on ourselves. Hillary Clinton, the governor mentioned, wants to put a lid on us. She wants to put a lid on our growth."
Translation: If you don't elect someone like me who believes in growth, Hillary Clinton will...put hats on us? Make us all short? Oh, stifle economic growth.
And of course, health care came up. In a question about the U.S.-Canada relationship, Giuliani noted, "If we do HillaryCare or socialized medicine, Canadians will have no place to go to get their health care."
Translation: If you don't elect someone like me who is against socializing health care, Hillary Clinton will let all the Canadians die.
So all of this would seem to be bad publicity for Hillary, right? Well, maybe not. Think about how part of the reason the candidates speak about her is to establish their, "I've already won the nomination," credentials. Now put that into reverse: by speaking about her so much, they're also sending a message to everyone else, including Democratic voters, that Hillary Clinton is as good as nominated. Of course, that's what the Republican party is probably hoping for, as they believe she will be their easiest foil in a general election. But the Clinton camp is not going to run from anyone calling Hillary the clear winner either.
Is Hillary Clinton as terrifying a figure as the Republicans make her out to be? Would her election really lead to the downfall of the United States--or at least a lot of taxes? Here's another quote from the Keyser Soze speech in The Usual Suspects:
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
In the story of Hillary Clinton and the Republican party, the question is whether this devil really exists. And which one is the devil?
Read more OffTheBus coverage and get involved by clicking here.