Just A Rough Patch For The Frontrunner?

(John P. Filo/CBS)
Jeff Greenfield is senior political correspondent for CBS News.
So the reviews are in and the consensus is: Hillary had a bad night; maybe a bad, bad night. And the question is: So what?

Can a shaky debate performance really matter to a candidate who dominates the national polls, who leads (narrowly) in Iowa and South Carolina and (humongously) everywhere else; a candidate who just picked up the endorsement of AFSCME, one of the biggest public employee unions in the country?

Well, yeah ... maybe. And here's why. When Sen. Clinton followed her effusive praise of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's plan to give illegal immigrants drivers' licenses with a refusal to back that idea, a single thought flashed through the minds of a thousand political junkies: "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

That remark by John Kerry, immortalized in late-night comedy monologues and a devastating Bush-Cheney TV ad, encapsulated the view of Kerry as a flip-flopper, a waffler, someone who couldn't be trusted to be clear and steadfast about where he stood.

Clinton so far has dodged that bullet, despite her effort to follow a "general election" strategy through the primaries — that is, to talk in a way that could appeal to independents and moderate Republicans even as she fights for the Democratic nomination. Thus, her tough talk on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, her refusal to say anything about Social Security other than that we need fiscal responsibility and bi-partisanship (how about apple pie while we're at it?).

With her immigration answer, however, the sound of screeching brakes as she suddenly realized she was approaching a general election minefield offered her opponents a dramatic moment with which to raise the "waffler" charge.

Even more (potentially) troublesome was her deer-in-the-headlights response to Tim Russert's question about whether she'd ask her husband to lift the ban he imposed on releasing any materials relating to their White House communications until 2012. "Well," she said weakly, "that's not my decision to make. And I don't think any president or first lady ever has."

The problem, of course, is that Clinton was unlike any first lady ever. She had an office in the West Wing; she vetted cabinet appointments; she ran her husband's health care initiative. Historians — and, yes, political foes — would love to sift through these materials looking for evidence, say, that she in fact refused to let her husband compromise on health care; or that there is a gap between her public version of events and what the records may indicate.

It brings to mind Hillary's refusal to release all of the Whitewater documents; a refusal that led to the appointment of an independent counsel and — indirectly — to Clinton's impeachment. Moreover, it raises at least the pssibility that her opponents may begin to ask: "What is she hiding?" — a question that could turn attention back to the turmoil of the '90s that so far has been absent from any examination of Clinton's presidential capabilities.

The last thing that campaign wants is to revisit Whitewater; the travel office firings (about which an independent counsel — not Ken Starr — said her sworn statements were "factually false" — or how she turned $1,000 into $100,000 trading cattle futures; or how she didn't know her brothers were being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby her husband for pardons for two low-life felons.

It may be that these issues will never see the light of day; but the specter of "hidden documents" makes it more likely than it was before Tuesday night's debate. And that's why Hillary's bad night could just possibly turn into more bad days and nights.