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Defining Democrats And Herself

Hillary Clinton changed the Democratic Presidential race last night in ways that will make her a more formidable candidate in the primaries while making the Democratic Party a stronger bet to improve their majorities in 2008. And she did it despite her refusal, again, to correct the most serious blunder of her Senate career. She “won” the debate without winning me.

I generally agree with the post-debate media spin that Senator Clinton’s overall performance helped her image. Putting aside for the moment her continuing discomfort in having to explain her original vote to authorize the Iraq invasion, Clinton’s principal media problem coming into the debate was symbolized by two books, and the media voyeurism they released, which did their best to define who Hillary Clinton is. For the last week they provided the media pundits, almost none of whom wish her well, with endless diversion reinforcing whatever pejorative images of the woman they hoped to push.

However, all this negative image making was based on pretty weak tea. When Carl Bernstein appeared on one of the cable news shows to summarize what he’d found after 600 pages and 10 years of research, the worst epithet he could conjure was that she appeared “inauthentic.” Not corrupt, not a liar, not a cheater, not disloyal, not stupid or venal, let alone a crook; just inauthentic. The Hardballers made what they could from this tea bag, reminding us of Clinton’s image of being overly scripted and triangulating, whatever that means.

But last night, I thought Clinton blew “inauthentic” away. And her supporters knew it: in the post-debate spin room, campaign adviser Mandy Grunwald explained that Hillary lived in a world where everyone else was constantly trying to define her, but the caricatures never matched the candidate her closest supporters saw every day. “Last night, Hillary defined herself,” she said; it is pretty standard spin, but I think she’s right.

In response after response, Clinton seemed very much in command of who she is and what she stands for, and there was nothing “inauthentic” about it. She was articulate, informed, and showed her experience and maturity. She’s been there, done that, and seemed to understand what worked and what didn’t and why. And except on the key issue of her original Iraq vote, Clinton was very much the Party unifier last night. She refused to allow Blitzer (or her colleagues) to define the issues in ways that would divide the party — with one major exception, which I’ll come back to. But first look at this framing:

Everybody on this stage, we are all united, Wolf. We all believe that we need to try to end this war. In two nights you’re going to have the Republican candidates here. They all support the war. They all support the president. They all supported the escalation. Each of us is trying in our own way to bring the war to an end. . . .

And I think it’s important particularly to point out; This is George Bush’s war. He is responsible for this war. He started the war. He mismanaged the war. He escalated the war. And he refuses to end the war.

And what we are trying to do, whether it’s by speaking out from the outside or working and casting votes that actually make a difference from the inside, we are trying to end the war. . . .

The differences among us are minor. The differences between us and the Republicans are major. And I don’t want anyone in America to be confused.

I thought all the other candidates did well, Obama and Dodd particularly so, though Dodd was the victim of Blitzer’s time discrimination, getting barely half the time and questions as Obama. But whatever benefit these rivals thought they might get from Hillary’s image, I suspect they know today that Clinton is not going to let others define her.

I have serious misgivings about Senator Clinton’s unwillingness to acknowledge the egregious error of her original war authorization vote. She said she was thoroughly briefed on the intelligence, knew all the evidence, talked to the dissenters, and yet — and this is the error she can’t admit — her judgment was to trust George Bush to do the right thing.

What I did not count on, and what none of us did who voted to give the President authority, is that he had no intention to allow the inspectors to finish the job.

Perhaps, but those who did not vote to give the President the authority did see the problem with Bush; why didn’t she? Or did she see it and believe the war would be a success? Blitzer did not ask that on follow up and it remains the key to understanding why many remain concerned about that vote.

Perhaps even more disturbing was her response to Edward’s attempts to reframe the “war on terror.” The Democrats should not be arguing about this; it is a ticket out of the morass. I thought Edwards was right to make this effort, even though it’s a tough sell, but his explanation last night of what he meant seemed weak. That gave Clinton the chance to wave 9/11 in the same way Bush does; it was an ugly moment in which the Democrat’s possible Presidential candidate missed an opportunity to improve her own image and her party’s ability to confront terrorism by helping Edwards reframe the terror debate. That she chose to use that moment not only to discredit Edwards but worse, to reinforce the most poisonous of the Bush/Cheney talking points is discouraging. That moment illustrated why so many of us have strong misgivings about a Clinton Presidency, no matter how authentic she is.

Thanks to Crooks and Liars for the Debate video.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley