Competence May Be Enough

There she was, at her podium center stage, ready for the onslaught. And Sen. Hillary Clinton got what she expected at last week's Democratic debate, and more. Aside from the predictable ripostes from rivals Sen. Barack Obama and John Edwards about her lack of specificity on fixing Social Security and her past support of the Iraq war (and maybe a future one in Iran), she was painted, in no particular order, as unelectable, untrustworthy, and unappealing. In an election that's about change, they were calling her the status quo Democrat--hoping the ultimate insult would stick and become the kiss of death. Or a way to revive their own poll numbers.

No doubt about it, Clinton's performance was the worst of her campaign. The warm Hillary--with the ever ready smile (and all-too-ready laugh)--was gone. She was more the stern headmistress than the coy front-runner, glaring at her opponents as they dared take her on--off her perch. She stonewalled direct questions as if that might be a way to keep out of political trouble. It didn't work; it only reminded voters (with help from her opponents) of another Clinton who used to parse his words. "Will she be the person who brings about the change in this country?" snickered former Senator Edwards. "You know, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the tooth fairy. But I don't think that's going to happen!"

But hold on. The argument about change is more complex than Edwards would have us believe. Sure, this election is about change; they always are. And of course Clinton didn't help herself in last week's debate, looking like just another evasive pol. But here's the real question to consider: How much change does the public really want? Have the voters decided it's time for the political equivalent of a long ball? Or do they think the times are too dangerous to take a big risk? After all, elections are often defined by the features of the previous presidency. George W. Bush has been a risk-taker, and the results have been less than inspirational. He's also regarded as a management nightmare. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says that for the past two years, the word most volunteered by those asked to describe the president is this: incompetent.

The public feels the same way about its government, seeing Congress as pretty much a joke (80 percent say it isn't getting anything done, according to a recent Pew survey). And around two thirds of Americans think the country is headed down the wrong track. But as New York Times columnist David Brooks recently pointed out, people also feel fairly good about their own lives. So as they try to decide on the next president, he says, they're looking for a way to reconcile their personal satisfaction with their dismay at the way the country is being run. In other words, fix the government, but leave them alone.

Experience. That's why this election may turn out to be more about the intangibles--that sense of what voters want in a leader. So when Clinton dissembles, refusing to answer direct questions--such as whether illegal immigrants should have driver's licenses or whether her husband's presidential papers should be released before the election--she doesn't help herself. But all is not lost. If voters are looking for the post-Bush president--someone strong and competent--she could still be their man. A new Pew survey shows that overwhelming majorities of voters find Clinton to be ambitious (93 percent), outspoken (84 percent), and tough (78 percent). For a woman, those traits were once deadly; now, the poll shows, a majority consider these attributes something they like about Clinton. (We've come a long way, baby.) She may not give you goose bumps at a rally, but she probably knows how to get things done. "Voters may not be willing to take a risk this year," says William Galston, a former Bill Clinton domestic policy adviser. "They probably want someone with a steady gme plan." In other words: less preaching, more pragmatism.

If true, that's not good news for Obama, whose campaign is built on inspiration--and on big ideas, like passing the generational torch. On the podium next to Clinton, he seems young and ill at ease; she exudes what she often calls her "lifetime of experience." But there is a danger here for Clinton, and we saw it last week: Obama's freshness also seems honest and sincere. Hillary's caution--which is the best spin to put on her performance--seems born out of too much political experience, and expedience. Evasiveness is not a quality voters search for in a leader.

By Gloria Borger