Full disclosure: In the primaries, I am not a Clinton supporter. I believe Edwards (or even Obama, despite all the overwhelmingly and also somewhat over cannibalizing press he has received on here lately) brings needed change, a fresh perspective, and has the best chance of winning the general election. And Biden would also make a good candidate in the general election, and an extremely good President.
Yet the widely circulated Edwards Campaign Clinton video was misleading, and played right along with Right Wing and Media spin.
Hopefully when the general election comes, the Edwards Campaign will illustrate this same ability to powerfully illustrate a case, without having previously been handed the roadmap, directions and content by the media and GOP.
While there may be nothing necessarily wrong with an Edwards making his case against Clinton, why has there been such an overwhelming effort by Democrats as a whole to focus on our own candidates publicly, rather than, more meaningfully, on the Republican field?
More importantly in terms of overall election strategy, why aren't Democrats focused on insisting that the level of scrutiny (and standards used) being applied by the media to Clinton, be applied to the Republican frontrunners?
On Friday, a front page post consisted of almost nothing but the video. It received close to 1400 comments, many of which ripped into Clinton; applying standards of logic that Democrats renounce when the Far Right applies it to us. A recommended diary the same day, of the video, received almost 650. Many of which reached the same conclusion.
Yet Clinton’s answers, contrary to some of the intensely derogatory things that were written, were consistent on two of the three topics presented in the video. And reasonably understandable with respect to the third.
There was also an exceptional opportunity for Clinton (or even any one of the other candidates) to turn the entire debate around, provocatively illustrate the media’s role, and center the focus on the right topics. An exact illustration of this is provided below, in an answer to perhaps Clinton’s most difficult question.
Consider the video's text, keeping in mind that much of it was spliced together in non sequential order. Also note that it starts off with a question by Tim Russert, who in his tone and manner is far more hostile than Edwards, who then cuts into Clinton himself. Yet Edwards is supposed to distinguish himself. Russert is the one who is supposed to remain objective. None of the candidates, including Edwards, should have tolerated the fact that he was not, and that he repeatedly used the debate as a platform to get in his own Right Wing talking points.
(No scene, white on black background) "Why do you have one public position, and one private position. (Russert, somewhat condescending voice)
(No scene, white on black background) "Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes." (Edwards)
(New scene, not in response to prior statement or question above) "I stand for ending the war in Iraq. Bringing our troops home." (Clinton)
(New scene) "We are going to have troops remaining there protecting our embassy. We may have a continuing training issue. And we may have a mission against al-Qaeda in Iraq." (Clinton)
(New scene) "But on specific issues, I have come out with very specific plans. With respect to Social Security, I do have a plan. But personally, I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility." (Clinton)
(No scene, white on black background) "Do you, the New York Senator, Hillary Clinton, support the new york govornor's plan to give illegal immigrants a drivers license." (Russert)
(New Scene, does not appear to follow preceding question)"I did not say it should be done. But I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it." (Clinton)
(New scene, but seems to follow prior one) "No no no, you said yes, you thought it made sense to do it. (Chris Dodd)
(Same scene) "No, I didn't Chris." (Clinton)
(New scene) "It makes a lot of sense... (thought not finished)...what is the Governor supposed to do. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No."
There were three issues presented, and the conclusion that was overwhelmingly drawn was that in all three, Clinton completely contradicted herself. (And that was some of the nicer "framing" of it in many of the comments.)
Let's briefly look at all three. But keep in mind as we do, that this is the image that the Far Right has worked very hard, for a very long time, to cultivate about Clinton.
The most problematic of the three is addressed first. The New York Driver's license program. To illustrate how difficult the question was -- one of the most difficult I've heard in a debate -- here is my non political answer to the question: "I do not agree with the program. I do not think that we should provide drivers licenses to illegal immigrants."
Now, how many people immediately have categorized me because of that answer? How many immigrants or ethnicities has that now alienated? How many of my own party's base have I alienated, when I need to win the nomination, when my position actually happens to concur with a majority of Americans -- but yet may not even be the right answer for New York facing its specific problem in the here and now. And can we really get into the details of all the considerations here in three minutes? Maybe there are reasons why the program makes more sense in New York, to suit New York's needs, even if I am opposed in general to the concept.
At the same time, the reality, is that a lot of Americans, Republican and Democrats, are tired of excessive illegal immigration. Is it sensible to harp on this issue now, in the primaries, and show that I am in accord with most Americans using the very poor vehicle of New York's own unique circumstances and present needs? As a candidate, I wouldn't.
It is a lose lose issue in the primaries for Democrats, with very little upside. There are also few easy answers. Candidate Tom Tancredo, and others on the Fox channel, almost sickeningly made illegals a scapegoat by picking on crimes by an extremely small percentage in so called sanctuary cities, when the issue was entirely a crime issue and had nothing to do with immigration. (In fact, if that is the argument, then Tancredo should have been supporting more illegal immigration. But logic rarely exists on Fox.)
Yet one possible answer to the question is; "That is what Governor Spitzer, whom I respect immensely, feels is in the best interests of New York. I am not in a position to second guess his judgment." Russert would continue to hammer away about how she "did not answer the question" even though Republican candidates routinely do the same. So, in response; "Am I big supporter of it, no. But I do understand why Governor Spitzer did so." It’s not really that far from what Clinton said. But she got pushed on it.
For a presidential nominee, as opposed to the question of waterboarding for an attorney general, it really was a hypothetical and somewhat irrelevant question. Yet Russert would probably still not let up (as it appeared he did not). So the next response would be;
"There are national policies, and there are state policies. The issue of Drivers licenses with respect to people driving and residing in that state, is a state issue. Is there a reason you are not only asking me about it, but continuing to hammer away at it? This is a presidential debate, so why are we focusing on things that don't have anything to do with being President of the United States? (pause) Yet I have also not yet heard you once ask me, or any of the other candidates, even one question about one of the most pressing issues of our times; big, secretive, intrusive government and the subversion of our Nation's basic founding principle of separated and checked powers under our Constitution. Why is that?"
Followed by, after Russert's inevitable twisting response:
"I'm not turning it around on you at all. What is your role here? You're over focusing on a hypothetical question, that doesn't have much to do with anything (slight pause), that is entirely a state's issue, and that I've already answered three times now. And I'm turning it around by not answering it a fourth time and focusing instead on a pressing national issue that (emphasis) has been largely ignored? Or by asking why YOU have not asked one single question, to any of us, on one of the more important questions of our times, (pause) yet instead want to continue to hammer on a largely irrelevant state driving issue that has nothing to do with the President? Perhaps you should rethink your role as moderator, and what you are trying to accomplish in these debates."
Note; It doesn’t normally help to alienate a moderator, but Russert already is; it would show a lot of good qualities; isolate the key issues; turn the hammering into an advantage without seeming to complain or whine about it; and use Russert’s illogic, which has been used for months to attack and twist, into an advantage. Aside from the fact (long shot that it is) that he might actually do his job a little more correctly as a result.
As for the specific issue, Elliot Spitzer has often exhibited sound judgment, and there may be strong arguments in favor of the program. let's also again assume that I am a Senator from the state where he is Governor, running for President, and I want his support and I support him. Suppose I think that in general it is not a direction we want to move in, but that in New York as Governor it made sense for him to institute the program to try and get some control over our streets. There are pros and cons both ways. How is this accurately assessed in three minutes?
It is true that Clinton did not handle the question as well as she could have. (Compare that tendency to the individual who was declared the winner of the past two presidential elections.) But at the same time, our sound bite format in the present age is leading to an excessive dumbing down, and that standard was applied here to Clinton.
The first two issues in the video were each presented on a white on black screen with the silent text "On Iraq," and then "On Social Security," immediately following. On each, Clinton was not inconsistent. Yet the out of context statements in the beginning of the video, by Russert and Edwards, implied the opposite. And hundreds of commenters piled on Clinton as if she was wildly pandering and contradicting herself, when she was doing nothing of the sort. To wit:
"I support bringing our troops home." How many troops do we have there? 130,000? 160,000 to be brought down to 130,000 next spring? Is that "protecting our embassy"? No. Is that "battling the al-Qaeda element there"? No. Is that "providing some ongoing training for Iraqi forces"? No. That is an all out war effort. Against what? Insurgents who may be insurging because we are there? The war as presently configured is an all out combat attempt to rectify something which is only in part military. Bringing our troops home means ending that. It means ending The war.
Remember the Pottery barn rule? "You break it, you bought it"? Is it a good idea to leave some units there to train Iraqi forces? Maybe. Is it relevant to the issue of "ending the war"? No. Likewise with protecting our embassy. And isn't al-Qaeda our enemy? Isn't that who we need to eradicate? We should be working to eliminate al-Qaeda elements wherever they are. (And that includes what may have been our biggest problem for several yeas now, and I suggested this a few years ago as well -- Pakistan. Iran has an average age of 25, they want to be more like the West, they don't like the authoritarian Mullahs, and all we are doing is encouraging reunifying nationalism directed against us.)
Nothing Clinton said in that first sentence is contradictory to her next assertion regarding the potential need to guard our embassy and continue training some forces there, or continuing to fight against a very small band of largely sovereignless al-Qaeda cells.
What about Social Security? While the Iraq issue does leave some room for varying interpretations, this one does not.
Examine our fiscal situation; our exploding national debt in the past six years. Examine the not immediately upcoming, but well into the future predicted Social Security crisis. Presently, fancy accounting is being done to use Social Security savings to pay for other parts of the budget, and mask the true size of our debt. At the same time, under current projections, almost all experts agree that down the road, there is going to be a tremendous shortfall (one of the many reasons why using these funds now while continuing to add to the overall debt level is imprudent.) In order to address that, at some point either benefits will need to be somewhat reduced, Social Security taxes will need to be increased -- or, instead of greatly supplementing our aleady strained treasury, Social Security as presently configured will in the future present an enormous additional strain upon it. It's not at heart a Social Security crisis, it's a fiscal crisis, of which Social Security in the future is projected to play a very detrimental role, and which fical problem exists now.
So what did Clinton say? She noted she has plans, including one for Social Security. I have a lot of plans too. Do you? Does that mean that every one of your plans gets instituted this instant? Or that you are a double talking pandering hypocrite if they do not? Are there other considerations for your plans? Maybe you need to get X done, before you implement plan Y? So what did Clinton say. She said "I am not going to be advocating any specific fix until I am seriously approaching fiscal responsibility."
Not only is that completely consistent, but it is probably the most sensible approach. And one that many economists support. That is, right now we have a tremendously exploding debt. Social Security is running a surplus. Is it that beneficial to artificially increase that surplus now if we are just going to continue to use it to mask, and thus perpetuate, the present fiscal mess? No. Not at all.
Those are the three issues. The first two Clinton was consistent on, the third she clearly did not do a great job with a difficult question, where it seems she understands why her own Governor, whom she greatly respects, implemented the program he did, but does not necessarily fully agree with it. Beyond that, does it matter that much?
Watch the video carefully. The words in white slowly focus into view on a black background: "Was it Tim Russert?" followed by Russert's ill toned, and antagonistically phrased question. "Was it something we said?" followed by Edwards suggestion that "unless I missed something, we just heard two different things in..." Followed by, "Was it doubletalk?" All just before the word "On Iraq" appears on the screen, followed by the Iraq references by Clinton, followed by "On Social Security," in words on the screen, etc. Then, the screen again goes black, and "It was a yes or no question" appears in white text, just before the immigration issue. At the end, the words "We still don’t know the answer" (which we actually do. She understands it, is not going to condemn it, but would not have done it herself). And multiple almost identical images of Clinton throughout, except for differing expressions -- often captured at their worse, which are then frozen on the screen while another image plays, to further the "saying different things" suggestion. All set to very well chosen music.
If one had the technological know how, one could produce the same type of video regarding John Edwards, or any of the other candidates.
The power of suggestion is greatly exhibited. Notice how (particularly with the use of the question marks in this context -- if you don't see this go back and view the video again) it allows viewers to feel as if they are reaching their own conclusions -- while powerfully giving the leading suggestions and support to accomplish it. This is something that the Democratic Party has been notoriously poor at in recent years. And it is what the Right Wing has been doing for years.
It is time that Democrats, instead of simply uttering conclusions, used examples and the power of suggestion, to make the case against their Republican counterparts. At least as aggressively as we have been against our own candidates. If not far more so.
Take a cue from them. They are focused on Clinton, not each other. This does not mean that we should be as similarly focused on Clinton as they are. Remember, we are on the other side. And Clinton may well be the nominee. If one can not see the broad and critical differences between Clinton and Giuliani, for instance, well -- then one has bought into all the hype. Which is just what Republicans, even while convincing the so called "undecided middle" of the country that Clinton is really a "Liberal" -- precisely want.