Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Clinton's Obama Conundrum

Democratic Front-Runners Tangle After Monday Night's Debate

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said today that Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, made comments that were "irresponsible and frankly naive" when he said in Monday night's debate that he would meet with leaders of rogue nations during his first year in office.

Clinton's response, made in an interview with an Iowa newspaper, marks the sharpest exchange to date between the top two Democratic candidates for president and the first time Clinton has explicitly attacked another Democratic candidate.

It represents an elevation in a simmering dispute between the two camps, and a continuation of a specific argument at Monday's debate.

The question that sparked the controversy at Monday's debate seemed simple enough: Would the candidates for president be willing to meet, within their first year in office, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?

Obama said yes, while Clinton said no, arguing that the president should only meet with world leaders who are hostile to the United States after lower-level diplomatic contacts are conducted. In an interview today with the Quad City Times, Clinton more directly criticized Obama's answer.

"I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive," Clinton said, according to a story posted on the newspaper's Web site.

Striking back, Obama called the newspaper Tuesday, saying what was "irresponsible and naive" was voting to authorize the Iraq war.

"What she's somehow maintaining is my statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting was about. I didn't say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon," he said, calling this a "fabricated controversy." more

Obama's full answer was:

"I would. 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.

Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.

And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We've been talking about Iraq -- one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they're going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses.

They have been acting irresponsibly up until this point. But if we tell them that we are not going to be a permanent occupying force, we are in a position to say that they are going to have to carry some weight, in terms of stabilizing the region."

Edwards got a bye on this question since he had the luxury of answering after Clinton. What's interesting to me is that Clinton opted to go after Obama for supplying a direct answer rather than a nuanced one. The fact that she's splitting hairs in order to make an attack tells me that she considers Obama a real threat to her nomination.

What Clinton doesn't seem to have grasped is that she needs to be careful on when, how, and why she attacks Obama. In past races the nominee could count on the majority of Dem's backing them after their first choice failed to win the nomination. However since Obama is pulling in many independents and some moderate Republicans there is no guarantee that she would reap a windfall of Obama supporters should she win the nomination. This is especially true if Bloomberg runs or Unity08 successfully fields a Dem presidential candidate with a GOP Vice Presidential candidate or a GOP presidential candidate with Obama as VP. (If they run head to head odds are they both lose.)

Given the fact that voters from both sides of the aisle dislike Clinton and that voter dissatisfaction is high she has to beat Obama on the issues rather than through attacks if she wants enough of his supporters to remain engaged and back her. Otherwise she risks losing the election by winning the nomination.