LOS ANGELES – "A noun, a verb, and 9/11" was the line of the night, the attack that worked, and it was not, as conventional wisdom would have predicted, a shot by Obama at Clinton, but one by Sen. Joe Biden at Republican Rudy Giuliani.
Nothing Barack aimed at Hillary came close. But why should it?
The conventional wisdom going into this debate was that this was the time, maybe long overdue, for Obama to take off his gloves and go after the former First Lady who, while running about even with him in Iowa, is opening up big leads both in New Hampshire and in the national polls.
According to this version of reality, which Obama himself contributed to in his weekend interviews, Obama supporters have been growing restive with his failure to translate his financial scores into political ones, and his inability to move beyond his status as a potential threat to Mrs. Clinton to actually being a real alternative.
The best way to do that, Obama himself seemed to be suggesting, was by going on the attack against Hillary, and the press was certainly buying it going in, which is no doubt why the first question in the debate was an invitation to Obama to do just that.
There’s only one problem. It’s the reason conventional wisdom is usually more conventional than wise. It’s the reason that, notwithstanding his success in getting a few shots off against Hillary, and his colleague John Edwards’ much more unrelenting barrage, my guess is that no one who was watching changed their minds as a result of last night’s debate, and no one who wasn’t will be racing to see the reruns.
The idea that Hillary is leading this race because of the kid glove treatment she’s been getting is silly; the minute you write it down it becomes clear how silly it is. No one has been beaten up more in the last two decades for every sin, real or imagined, personal or political, from her choice of hairdo to her clothing and her cleavage, from her role in her husband’s White House to his potential role in hers, than Hillary Clinton.
The suggestion that last night, Obama’s big accomplishment was to introduce the electability issue as a factor in this race is equally silly. People have been writing, whining, moaning and groaning about Hillary’s supposed divisivness, her purportedly polarizing personality, her issues with electability since the Obamas were students in law school.
This is new? This is something no one has ever heard before? Get real.
It may not have been Obama delivering the attack lines, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been delivered, heard, analyzed and factored in. Indeed, I would argue that the reason Obama was, initially, viewed as a potentially serious threat to Hillary was because of the potency of such questions, so clearly raised by others that all Barack had to do was smile.
Well, not all. He also had to prove himself. That’s what has been lacking in his campaign. It’s not that he hasn’t been tough enough on Hillary. It’s that people, until recently, weren’t very tough on him, letting him pass with an inspirational speech, an allusion to hope, a sense that he was different, without the need to go beyond that and fill out the picture of why it was he deserved, or was prepared, to assume the most powerful job in the world based on his own experience and qualifications.
That’s the part of the picture that’s been blank for too long, the second date — and the third — that would convince people that he was actually the alternative he was poised to become.
Barack could afford to pledge, and to run, a positive campaign because the negative assaults against Hillary had already been launched, and would never end, so long as there is a Republican in the race. But he had to do more than "sound" positive: he had to offer real substance, real proposals, a real alternative. He had to use the campaign, and campaigning, as the forum for establishing that he really was up to the job, the 21st century man, the guy who was ready for the biggest job in the world.
In other words, it’s Obama, stupid. It’s him, not her. The problem is not that he hasn’t been specific enough about his assaults on Hillary, but that he hasn’t been specific enough about his own agenda, about what he has to offer, and why we should trust him to provide it— about why, as my friend Rich Galen, the Republican strategist meanly but aptly puts it, his "true color" isn’t green.
Going into the debate, Obama’s team put out the story that the candidate was studying the 1992 debates of Bill Clinton to figure out how to remain likeable while going on the attack. Clinton was, and is, a great politician, and every would-be president could learn something by watching his past performances, but the notion that this was somehow the centerpiece of Obama’s preparation made me laugh.
After all, Obama is supposed to be the candidate of the future, not the past, the answer to Clinton fatigue, not the best imitator of Clinton in attack mode. If you want another Clinton, there’s one running.
What made Bill Clinton the greatest politician of his time was his unique ability to understand where the country was, and how he fit into that picture. That’s something Obama has yet to demonstrate.
The idea that Obama could build on his inspirational launch into the presdiential campaign by mimicing the most conventional strategy tool of all time — if in doubt, attack the guy, or girl, who’s ahead of you, go negative not positive — suggests he doesn’t even get his own magic, which is why it’s still in the potential category.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.