Clinton v. Obama

The campaign’s first throw-down is thin stuff

Looks like we have ourselves a fight. All three major dailies today have accounts of the rhetorical rumble between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over the answers each gave to a question at the CNN/YouTube debate earlier this week. The initial argument, over what value each candidate would place on diplomacy in a future administration, has now been almost completely overshadowed by the verbal sparring that has followed it. Instead we have the kind of red meat the press loves: a set of put downs and counter put downs. Clinton calls Obama “irresponsible and frankly na├»ve.” Obama calls Clinton “Bush-Cheney lite.” Clinton answers that this the whole spat is “silly.” And on and on. It serves everyone’s purpose. Reporters have something to write about, and the candidates have a chance to get some airtime to try to distinguish themselves from each other.

But does this particular argument really, as the The New York Times tells us today, go “to the heart of what each stands for as a candidate”?

It’s worth it to take another look at what actually happened at the debate.

A YouTube questioner—Stephen from San Francisco—wondered if upon taking office any of the candidates “would be willing” to make a dramatic gesture like Anwar Sadat’s 1977 surprise visit to Israel and “meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration” with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

The question was posed to Obama and he responded quickly: “ I would.” But what he then said put a finer point on his initial outburst. “And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration—is ridiculous.”

The point he was trying to make is that he would employ a different model than the one used by the Bush administration. He would use diplomacy as the starting point, as a tool for getting somewhere, and not as a reward or punishment in and of itself.

What did Hillary then say when the same question was posed to her? Basically, the same thing. She promised a “very vigorous diplomatic effort,” and then said that she does “certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration.”

The distinction that she did draw was that she would not meet with these leaders personally in the first year without assessing their “intentions.” But that, it seems, is pro forma with all diplomacy. Sadat’s visit to Israel—the example cited by the questioner and the one Obama was emulating in his response—did not happen on a whim, it was built on years of trilateral negotiations between Egypt, Israel, and America.

The real difference was in tone. Obama said, “I would,” and then qualified his answer. Clinton backed into it: “Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year,” and then qualified her answer, starting with what she would “promise.” And the qualifications that both added amounted to the same message: they want to reengage with the world and abandon the Bush paradigm of granting diplomacy a lesser status.

Sure, they’re gut, initial response speaks to their political instincts, with Clinton more cautious and Obama more eager, but this doesn’t change the fact that they were essentially expressing the same thing.

How fitting, though, that our first real aggressive face-off is an argument about style that masquerades as one about substance?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.