It's not yet Halloween, but already the goblins are stirring. Some of more mischievous sprites, eager for a little early fun of the season, frightened some of the Democrats sane at the debate the other night at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
These are the goblins from the Land of Reality, the sometimes grim territory some of our Democrats rarely trouble to visit. The interlocutor asked the presidential wannabes, who only yesterday competed to see who could make the rashest promises about war and peace, and nobody wanted to answer. Who among them would "guarantee" pulling all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by 2013? That's the year marking the end of the first and maybe only term of whoever is elected president next year.
"I think it's hard to project four years from now," said Barack Obama, who was once full of airy promises about what he would do if only he could get the chance.
"It's very difficult to know what we're going to be inheriting," said Nurse Hillary, carefully coached by her famous in-house master of slipping, sliding and the famous clintonclause.
"I cannot make that commitment," said John Edwards. A Breck girl is always reluctant to make commitments.
The only candidates eager to make such a promise were those confident of never having to make good on it. Chris Dodd said he would "get the job done." Bill Richardson was willing to be specific: "I'll bring the troops home by the end of my first year." That would be 2009, not 2013. Talk about your empty promises.
Big talk and hot air are the staples of any presidential campaign, particularly in the early months when candidates can say anything because nobody's listening except the angry, the frustrated and the gullible who are willing to write checks just to hear a good rant.
But now the front-tier candidates have to be careful. Such a candidate thinks he can discern the first faint outlines of a presidential figure and if he squints real hard he can even see a figure who seems to look a lot like himself (or herself). Maybe some of those early irresponsible promises made early in the season were, well, irresponsible. Blaming George W. Bush for everything is really, really fun, and it scratches where a lot of hysterical partisans itch, but just about now the hard stuff begins.
This separates the boys from the men in long pants, and men in long pants, big in both beam and ambition, definitely includes Nurse Hillary. She is getting a taste of the life of the front-runner, who at last has to answer hard questions. By the end of the Dartmouth debate, she was thinking that this was no way to treat a lady.
Joe Biden first challenged Nurse Hillary's claim that she expects to be "the health care president." She boasted that she learned from the disaster she made of health care in 1993 and can put those lessons to work this time. No, no, Mr. Biden said, the "special interests" aren't any more willing to work with her now than they were 15 years ago. "A lot of old stuff will be coming back," he said, eliciting an icy stare from the lady. "When I say old stuff," he said, "I mean policy. Policy." Well, of course he does.
Nurse Hillary demurred when Tim Russert, the interlocutor, pressed her after she said she would never torture a prisoner of war even if unfriendly persuasion could prevent the explosion of a bomb killing thousands. Mr. Russert reminded her that her husband once sensibly answered yes to a similar question.
"Well, he's not standing here right now." When Mr. Russert pressed harder, she said she would deal with Bill through a little pillow talk, figuring the very prospect would change his mind in a hurry.
These "evasions," as the loons on the Democratic fringe regard them, are inevitable in the Land of Reality. Sane and reasonable men and women understand that the war against terror, or whatever we're calling it this week, is real and the threat is lethal. Calling it quits in Iraq, however wise it was to go there and however difficult it may be to stay there, won't cut it. Everyone in the Land of Reality knows that.