The last two standing after 17 debates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama treated each other graciously Thursday evening in Los Angeles--even as they pointed out their differences. With the Republican race taking shape around John McCain, Clinton and Obama can't afford to look like two kids squabbling in the back seat while the elder statesman drives toward the nomination.
When they differed, it was cordial and substantive. He is more of a big-picture guy, a sociologist explaining the complexities of a problem, while she offers solutions and plans and proposals. They went over familiar ground to debate junkies--her health-care mandate; his belief that people will buy insurance if it's affordable; her wariness about talking to dictators; his willingness to engage with America's enemies.
The sharpest exchange occurred over Iraq, her experience versus his judgment in opposing the war from the start. Obama won that one, co-opting Clinton's trademark slogan about her readiness to be president when he said, "It's important to be right on Day One." Clinton rattled on defending her vote to give President Bush authority to wage war, which she claimed she didn't think he'd really use, until CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked, "Are you saying you were naïve in trusting President Bush?"
"No, that's not what I was saying, but good try," Clinton replied with a good-natured smile.
The tone of the evening was so different from last week's slugfest that it seemed only natural when a questioner in the online audience asked about the Democrats' "dream ticket," Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton. Obama went first, parrying the question, but concluding that "Hillary would be on anybody's short list." Hillary laughed heartily as she agreed with her rival. The good feeling may not last, but the debate framed the choice confronting Democrats as a difficult one of choosing between a candidate well versed in the byways of Washington policymaking and another with a rare ability to touch the heartstrings of politics.
Hillary did a lot to repair the ill feelings generated by her husband. In campaigning for the South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton's goal was to make it harder for Democrats to vote against his wife. Instead he made it easier, even easy for some disillusioned liberals. An Al Gore person told me, "Now you understand why Al Gore didn't use Bill Clinton in 2000." The bottom line: with the former president it's all about him, and you can't trust him to stay on message. Democrats still love him, but they've had their fill. Asked about her husband at the debate, Hillary repeated her defense of him as a passionate spouse but said this is her campaign and the presidency is a lonely job.
We don't know yet whether the South Carolina results and the campaigning before the vote was a singular event or the unraveling of Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Obama's coalition of nearly 80 percent of the black vote together with almost one-quarter of the white vote allowed him to reclaim the mantle of a unifier. Bill Clinton did away with the fiction that this is Hillary's campaign. It's clear her election is wrapped up in his legacy, and he could cost her the nomination. If she does grind out the delegates and win her party's nod, he's handed the Republicans a potent line of attack for the fall campaign.
Bill Clinton did precisely what Hillary had done to him in '92. Remember "two for the price of one?" It didn't work then, and Hillary retreated from the frontlines, turning herself into a Stepford wife. A cartoon that ran shortly before the election showed Bill at the podium and on the stage next to him was a small box with air holes. The caption read: "Only three more days, Hillary, and you can come out."
Two-for-one is not a winning slogan. It's too late to put Bill into a box though he's now campaigning like he's in a straitjacket, sticking to the script and, in his words, refusing to take the bait. The Clintons think they're the victims, that the media is infatuated with Obama and out to get them. Fairly or unfairly, our whole way of doing politics is on trial in this campaign. Democrats for so long wished they had their own Karl Rove, and when they got him in the guise of the Clintons they discovered he is really yesterday, his theories discredited.
Hillary is better than that, but the core of her campaign is that she can beat the right-wing attack machine, and her election would insure the continuation of the attack-and-divide politics that distinguish the Bush-Rove era. The differences between Clinton and Obama on issues are small. Voters are deciding on the basis of who they think can best rally the country and work the levers of government, and they're voting not only for a candidate but a style of politics. Both candidates showed in Los Angeles they're capable of rising above the petty slights of a heated campaign. The choice for Democrats just got a whole lot harder. These two people are of such high quality that the party and the country can't lose.