WASHINGTON—As political debates go, it was fine drama when Barack Obama said last week that he’d meet with dictators without preconditions. Hillary Clinton pounced quickly to say that she’d never give some thug like Fidel Castro an open-ended opportunity to score points at the expense of the U.S. president.
The immediate score: a gaffe for Obama and a win for Clinton.
It was another sign of how Clinton is a better debater than her younger rival. She’s quicker on her feet, more agile, readier with a sound bite that fits a long-range political strategy.
It also was another example of how she has her eyes as much on a general-election audience as on the Democratic base. In an earlier debate, for example, Obama said he’d respond to a terrorist attack by making sure that the Federal Emergency Management Agency could handle the carnage. She said she’d retaliate militarily.
Through four debates, it’s clear she’s better at this test than Obama is.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean she’d be the better president. In fact, the debates don’t really signal how either one would make decisions in the Oval Office.
Presidents rarely, if ever, have to act alone or in 30-second sound bites, as they do on the debate stage. Even in wartime, presidents get more time and much more opportunity to think through their decisions.
“If there were a nuclear attack, that would be one thing,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek, the author of books on Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. “But that doesn’t happen. When there is any military action, it’s invariably the consequence of many hours of deliberation.”
Consider the most dangerous confrontation of modern times, when Kennedy risked nuclear war in a 1962 showdown to get the Soviet Union to withdraw missiles from Cuba.
The relatively inexperienced Kennedy spent hours and hours working through the crisis with his military and diplomatic advisers, challenging a Pentagon recommendation of airstrikes before settling on the idea of a naval blockade of Cuba. “They spent 13 days struggling with that,” Dallek said.
It was a shining example of presidential leadership and executive management, and none of it came quickly, easily or in a sound bite.
Or consider the decision on how and when to retaliate for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush took his time before ordering the attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan the next month.
To look at it another way, recall the 2000 debates, when then-candidate Bush denounced the use of the U.S. military for what he called nation-building. He said he’d be much more cautious than the reckless Clinton-Gore administration.
Yet when he was in the Oval Office, he committed the country to open-ended “nation-building” in Iraq that’s cost more than 3,000 American lives with no prospect for a successfully built nation anytime soon.
This isn’t to say that debates are worthless. But history suggests that once in the Oval Office, judgment counts more than the speed and rhetorical agility of debates.
On that score, voters might be better served to look at how these two candidates reacted when given time to debate and decide whether the United States should invade Iraq.
Obama was just an Illinois state senator at the time, but considering a run for higher office. Though privy only to what he could read in the newspapers, he opposed the invasion. So did the senior Democrat from his home state, Sen. Dick Durbin, and 22 other Senate Democrats.
Clinton was in the Senate. She didn’t read the National Intelligence Estimate that raised questions about the threat posed by Iraq, but said she was briefed not only by the Bush administration but also by experts from her husband’s administration. She voted for the war.
Those are the kinds of decisions that people make in private after asking questions, weighing options and choosing courses. They’re rarely foreseen in debates or sound bites. But that’s how people govern.
What they said in last week’s Democratic debate:
QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
OBAMA: 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 the 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.
CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration.
And I will pursue very vigorous diplomacy.
And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.
(Steven Thomma is chief political correspondent for the McClatchy Washington bureau.)