Most of the conversation about last night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina is about how strikingly personal and heated the exchanges were between Senators Clinton and Obama. It appears as if having to deal with the flood of false charges made by Bill Clinton is starting to agitate the young Senator from Illinois. Bill Clinton is an icon among many Democrats; he is also a promiscuous liar. Barack Obama is having to deal with both things.
But last night there were also two important moments on substantive issues. The first came when Joe Johns of CNN prefaced a question to Hillary Clinton this way: “Last week, U.S. military commanders on the ground in Iraq said that Baghdad is now 75 percent secured. There’s also important signs of political progress, including de-Baathification, which was basically long awaited. That, of course, was a big benchmark. Last week, you said the next president will, quote, ‘have a war to end in Iraq.’ In light of the new military and political progress on the ground there in Iraq, are you looking to end this war or win it?
Senator Clinton responded this way: “I’m looking to bring our troops home, starting within 60 days of my becoming president…”
This is about as clear as things can get. Hillary Clinton, when asked if she is looking to win the war, answered that she is looking to bring the troops home. She obviously believes victory is impossible and that her role as commander-in-chief would be to navigate an American loss in Iraq as quickly as possible. Given the security and political progress we’ve seen there in the last year and the consequences of losing in Iraq, her position is not only unwise; it is reckless. What is it that would drive Mrs. Clinton to delude herself into believing the United States has irredeemably lost a war in which we’re making remarkable and empirically demonstrable progress? And what additional evidence does the nation need that leading Democrats are invested in a narrative of defeat in Iraq – and they will stick with it regardless of the progress we make? This, in turn, gives rise to a third question: Will the American people elect a person for President who has an ideological stake in seeing America lose this war, which is itself part of an epic struggle against militant Islam?
Later in last night’s debate another revealing moment occurred. During a conversation about poverty, Senator Clinton said this:
Well, I respect John’s [Edwards] commitment to ending poverty. That’s why, 35 years ago, when I graduated from law school, I didn’t go to work for a law firm. I went to work for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, because ending poverty– particularly ending poverty for children, has been the central core cause of everything that I’ve been doing for 35 years.
It’s worth recalling that Ms. Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, was a fierce critic of welfare reform and called the 1996 law an “outrage… that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children.” Her husband Peter Edelman, then Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services, called the new law “awful” policy that would do “serious harm to American children.” He resigned from his post in protest. And Mrs. Clinton was hardly a champion, and at various points a critic, of welfare reform within the Clinton Administration.
Yet it turns out that the 1996 welfare reform bill was the most successful and dramatic social policy innovation in many decades. The welfare caseload has declined by more than 60 percent since its high-water mark in 1994. All but one state reduced its caseloads by at least one-third, and some states reduced them by more than 90 percent. Not only has the number of people on welfare plunged, but in the wake of welfare reform overall poverty, child poverty, black child poverty, and child hunger declined, while employment of single mothers increased.
Last night’s debate also focused on health care, so it is worth recalling that Mrs. Clinton, as first lady, attempted to engineer a government takeover of our health care system. Her idea was awful and she was politically routed. Her health care failure helped set the stage for Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years (Republicans picked up 52 House seats, as well as eight Senate seats, in the 1994 mid-term election).
Senator Clinton portrays herself as a person of extraordinary experience and ability, one who would be “the best president on day one.” Yet most of her experience was as first lady of Arkansas and then the United States. She fulfilled that role for 20 years – and to the degree that she was involved in driving specific policies, she was often wrong.
The GOP is in a bad way right now. But if Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic nominee, a pathway for a GOP victory in November opens up. She wants to make the race about her stances on the issues and her record. So do Republicans.