They Did the Monster Mash

The “Hillary bombed” message has caught on in a flash...the thing is, though, she didn’t

As Liz pointed out earlier today, the MSM has offered divided perspectives on Hillary Clinton’s performance in last night’s Democratic debate. Blogs, however, offered some fairly definitive takes:

“Clinton stands tall but then stumbles,” writes The Fix’s Chris Cillizza. Similarly, “Driver licenses for undocumented: Clinton stumbles,” announces The Swamp’s Mark Silva. More succinctly, “Clinton Bombs Debate,” declares Politico. And according to Daily Kos, “Hillary Bombs. No Surprise!”

Why, exactly? Let’s stick with Politico:

When Hillary Clinton has a bad night, she really has a bad night. In a debate against six Democratic opponents at Drexel University here Tuesday, Clinton gave the worst performance of her entire campaign. It was not just that her answer about whether illegal immigrants should be issued driver’s licenses was at best incomprehensible and at worst misleading. It was that for two hours she dodged and weaved, parsed and stonewalled.

Um, okay. So how, exactly, did she do this? Here’s the transcript of the driver’s-licenses-to-illegal-immigrants section many press accounts identified as the key move of Clinton’s supposed Dodgeball Dance:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer has proposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. You told the Nashua, New Hampshire editorial board it makes a lot of sense. Why does it make a lot of sense to give an illegal immigrant a driver’s license?

CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is fill the vacuum left by the failure of this administration to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. We know in New York we have several million at any one time who are in New York illegally. They are undocumented workers. They are driving on our roads. The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It’s probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum.

I believe we need to get back to comprehensive immigration reform because no state, no matter how well-intentioned, can fill this gap.

There needs to be federal action on immigration reform.

DODD: This is a privilege. And look, I’m as forthright and progressive on immigration policy as anyone here, but we’re dealing with a serious problem here, we need to have people come forward. The idea that we’re going to extend this privilege here of a driver’s license, I think, is troublesome. And I think the American people are reacting to it.

We need to deal with security on our borders, we need to deal with the attraction that draws people here, we need to deal fairly with those who are here; but this is a privilege. Talk about health care, I have a different opinion. That affects the public health of all of us. But a license is a privilege, and that ought not to be extended, in my view.

WILLIAMS: Who else? Senator —

CLINTON: I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it. And we have failed —

DODD: Wait a minute. No, no, no. You said yes, you thought it made sense to do it.

CLINTON: No, I didn’t, Chris. But the point is, what are we going to do with all these illegal immigrants who are (driving ?) — (inaudible)?

DODD: Well, that’s a legitimate issue. But driver’s license goes too far, in my view.

CLINTON: Well, you may say that, but what is the identification if somebody runs into you today who is an undocumented worker —

DODD: There’s ways of dealing with that.

CLINTON: Well, but —

DODD: This is a privilege, not a right.

CLINTON: Well, what Governor Spitzer has agreed to do is to have three different licenses; one that provides identification for actually going onto airplanes and other kinds of security issues, another which is an ordinary driver’s license, and then a special card that identifies the people who would be on the road.

DODD: That’s a bureaucratic nightmare.

CLINTON: So it’s not the full privilege.

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, I just want to make sure what I heard. Do you, the New York Senator Hillary Clinton, support the New York governor’s plan to give illegal immigrants a driver’s license? You told the Nashua, New Hampshire, paper it made a lot of sense.


RUSSERT: Do you support his plan?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed.

And here’s Clinton’s kicker:

Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who’s in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He’s making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.

So. Did Clinton evade? Yes, a bit. Did she equivocate? A little. (As Josh Marshall points out on TPM, “She actually grappled with the issue and pointed to the apparent necessity of the policy. But as soon as it came to ‘endorsing’, which here meant embracing the logical extension of everything she just said, she pulled back.”) But did Clinton, as Dodd (and, later, Edwards and Obama) suggested, contradict herself? No, she didn’t. Clinton didn’t say that she supported Spitzer’s controversial policy. She never said, onstage, “it makes sense,” as Dodd tries to spin it. Nor, actually, did she make that claim to the body Russert referred to as “the Nashua, New Hampshire, editorial board” (actually, it was the editorial board of the Nashua Telegraph newspaper). Here’s what Clinton did say, according to the New York Daily News:

‘I know exactly what Gov. Spitzer’s trying to do and it makes a lot of sense, because he’s trying to get people out of the shadows,’ she said. ‘He’s trying to say, “Okay, come forward and we will give you this license.’”

It’s hard to see the inconsistency here. Clinton was saying, in the Nashua interview, only that it makes sense for Spitzer to try to account for undocumented workers—not that she supports every detail of his proposed policy for doing that. Which is exactly what she said, only with more detail and context, in last night’s debate.

Besides which, to be fair, what else could Clinton have said in answer to Russert’s question? It would have been both politically foolish and intellectually dishonest of her to cast, in effect, an up-or-down vote on an incredibly complex (and controversial) issue, to respond with the simple “yes” or “no” that is, apparently, the only answer that would mollify Russert and the other candidates. (Just as it would have been foolish and disingenuous of her to “pledge to the American people that Iran will not develop a nuclear bomb while you are president,” as Russert was trying to coax her into doing earlier in the debate.) If anything, Clinton fell victim last night to the Kerry Trap: she was offering nuance in a forum that rewards sound bites. She was giving a gray-shaded answer to a question that seemed designed to trap her in its black-and-white bars—essentially, to turn all the predictions about the debate being Obama’s Night into self-fulfilling prophesies.

And speaking of, what did Obama have to say about the driver’s license issue?

OBAMA: Well, I was confused on Senator Clinton’s answer. I can’t tell whether she was for it or against it, and I do think that is important. You know, one of the things that we have to do in this country is to be honest about the challenges that we face. Immigration is a difficult issue. But part of leadership is not just looking backwards and seeing what’s popular, or trying to gauge popular sentiment. It’s about setting a direction for the country, and that’s what I intend to do as president.

WILLIAMS: Are you for it or against it?

OBAMA: I think that it is a — the right idea. And I disagree with Chris, because there is a public safety concern. We can make sure that drivers who are illegal come out of the shadows, that they can be tracked, that they are properly trained, and that will make our roads safer. That doesn’t negate the need for us to reform illegal immigration.

Which seems more evasive than Clinton’s answer. But never mind.

It’s one thing—and, of course, a good thing—to be calling out candidates when they’re being less than straightforward about their stances on important issues. But it’s another to be selective in doing so. Last night’s debate brought an unfortunate spin to the term “pack journalism”: reporters and candidates alike seemed on the prowl when it came to Clinton. (Indeed, it was hard not to picture, both during and after the debate, Discovery Channel footage of a pack of hungry lions stalking a gazelle.) But Clinton generally evaded the traps set out for her. Blog bloviation notwithstanding, last night was by no means her Dean Scream.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.