Remember when being a woman was considered to be a liability in a presidential candidate? In an impressive display of political jiu-jitsu, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has turned her gender into a gem of an asset.
First it helped to keep her all-male rivals at bay. Until last week's match-up in Philadelphia, the guys stayed mostly chivalrous toward front-runner Clinton to avoid the appearance of prep school bullies in neckties beating up on their team's only girl.
Besides, a lot of Democratic voters have complained that they don't like to see Democrats beating up on each other. Save that for the Republicans, they say. Party loyalty is good politics, even if for us scriveners in the working press it makes boring debates.
Philadelphia was not boring. After months of debates, Sen. Barack Obama, Clinton's closest rival, and former Sen. John Edwards, who's been trailing Obama, haven't made a dent in nationwide polls that show her leading by 20 points or more. Her two biggest rivals' last big chance to stay in the game may be the Iowa caucuses, where polls show the three in a virtual dead heat. Voters in Iowa, as in New Hampshire, seem to take a singular pride in ignoring national media as they wait patiently for each candidate to shake their hands in person.
With Iowa fast approaching, Clinton's opponents pounced, helped by some of her old quotes, which questioner Tim Russert of NBC revived. On several key issues, such as her votes in favor of President Bush's authority for dealing with Iraq and Iran and her dodging specifics on how she might keep Social Security solvent, she appeared at some points to be debating herself.
The most glaring example came near the end when she tried to explain why she once said that New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to allow illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses "makes a lot of sense." After answering the question once, she raised her hand later to add that, "I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it." That prompted Edwards to pounce: "Sen. Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." Obama, too, was "confused on Sen. Clinton's answer" and "can't tell whether she was for it or against it."
Democrats tend to favor licenses for illegals to encourage safer driving, among other worthwhile reasons. But, Clinton apparently has no desire to further rile up the right-wingers, for whom any convenience for illegals is seen as capitulation to lawbreakers, pure and simple.
Similarly, Obama and Edwards have suggested plans under which upper-income earners would pay more Social Security payroll taxes to keep the program solvent. At present, only the first $97,500 in yearly earnings is taxed. Clinton preferred to kick that touchy problem down the road by promising to set up a bipartisan commission, if she's elected president. Score one each for Edwards and Obama for political courage, which too often is hard to find in election years.
Clinton's campaign came fighting back the next day with a video on its Web site and on YouTube that featured a new post-debate spin: Her rivals were abandoning "the politics of hope" for the "politics of pile-on." The tightly edited video worthy of "The Daily Show" features Obama and Edwards and Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd at the debate uttering her name ("
Hillary!") in a rapid-fire staccato over the elegant strains of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" in the background. The video then cuts to a smiling Clinton, seemingly bemused by all of the attention as she says, "I seem to be the topic of great conversation and consternation, and that's for a reason
Yes, it is. Never mind that she actually was referring in that sound clip to the Republican candidates who can't seem to stop talking about her in their party's debates, either. The message is clear, as we enter the final weeks before the casting of actual votes, that Clinton is defining the campaigns in both parties.
For her Democratic rivals, she's the woman to beat. The polls show that she's got momentum on her side, especially with women, across lines of race and ethnicity. For Republicans, she's the woman whose name excites the party's base more than the party's presidential candidates do, if in a negative somebody-stop-her way.
With those strengths in mind, it is disappointing to see her play the "pile-on" card after one bad debate night. It may be smart politics, but it's not easy to complain about the roughness of a game after you've worked so hard to get into it. Besides, in this case, most of her wounds were self-inflicted.