J. Leopold: Clinton, Obama Tout Policy Differences
Clinton, Obama Tout Policy Differences
Hollywood, California - This was no prizefight.
The tone at Thursday night's historic Democratic presidential debate between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was congenial, a dramatic difference from the verbal barbs and mudslinging that marred the debate last week in South Carolina.
Still, despite the civility in tone, Clinton and Obama have decidedly different approaches to domestic and foreign policy issues, which they discussed at length during their first one-on-one debate, and their last before Super Tuesday - at the Kodak Theater in the heart of Hollywood.
Not since 1972, when George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey, has California played a significant role in the Democratic primary. At stake are 441 delegates, which could very well decide who will become the Democratic presidential nominee. The campaign between Clinton and Obama has now become a matter for the history books as the Democratic Party can now lay claim to two firsts: The party's two remaining presidential candidates are an African-American and a woman, one of whom will win their party's nomination this summer.
"When we started off, we had eight candidates on this stage. We now are down to two after 17 debates. And, you know, it is a testimony to the Democratic Party and it is a testimony to this country that we have the opportunity to make history, because I think one of us two will end up being the next president of the United States of America." Obama said in an opening statement, moments before Clinton explained their policy differences.
"The differences between Barack and I pale" compared with the Republican presidential candidates, Clinton said. "But I believe passionately that we must have universal health care. You have to bite this bullet. You have to say, yes, we are going to try to get universal health care. What I have designed makes it affordable, provides premium caps so it's never above a small percentage of what individuals are asked to pay."
Clinton said her $110 billion plan would be paid for partially by rolling back President Bush's tax cuts, which she said would generate roughly $55 billion in taxes from individuals and families who earn more than $250,000 a year.
"If you take business, which pays the costs and wants to get those costs down, take labor that has to negotiate over health care instead of wages, take doctors, nurses, hospitals who want to get back into the business of taking care of people instead of working for insurance companies, I think we will have a coalition that can withstand the health insurance and the drug companies," Clinton added.
Obama said his approach, lowering the cost of health care so it's affordable for all Americans, is the better alternative. Clinton's plan, he said, did not address the rising costs of health care. Obama's plan would also be funded in part by rolling back Bush's tax cuts.
"You can mandate [health care], but there's still going to be people who can't afford it," Obama said. "And if they cannot afford it, then the question is, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to fine them? Are you going to garnish their wages? You know, those are questions that Senator Clinton has not answered with respect to her plan."
Outside of the Kodak Theater, which in less than a month will host the 50th Academy Awards, hundreds of people filled Hollywood Boulevard, an overwhelming number of whom appeared to be Obama supporters, judging by the number of signs supporting him compared with the number of people who carried signs in favor of Clinton.
This being Hollywood, a who's who of A-list celebrities, including directors Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner, actresses Diane Keaton, Fran Drescher, and legendary singer Stevie Wonder, posed for the paparazzi before filing into the 3,400-seat venue.
Those who could not get into the debate watched it on two jumbotron screens set up outside of the theater. They erupted into cheers, which were so loud they were heard deep inside the theater, when Clinton and Obama took a swipe at their Republican challengers and lambasted President Bush's tenure in office.
When the discussion, moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, switched gears and moved toward Iraq, Clinton struggled to defend her decision to vote in favor of military force more than five years ago, even in the face of a question that was sent in from an online viewer who asked why the New York senator did not support an amendment by Sen. Carl Levin that called for granting UN inspectors unconditional access to Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction, instead of the White House's resolution that called for a preemptive strike.
"The way that amendment was drafted we would subordinate our judgment to the UN Security Council," Clinton said. "I didn't think that was a good idea. If I had known then what I know now I would never have given President Bush the authority" to use military force.
Obama seized upon Clinton's gaffe - cordially - by reminding the senator the legislation she voted in favor of in 2002 "had the title "Authorization to use force in Iraq."
"It was clear to everybody [who voted in favor of the bill] that this was permission to go to war. The reason that this is important (Clinton's Iraq vote), again, is that Senator Clinton, I think, fairly, has claimed that she's got the experience on day one. And part of the argument that I'm making in this campaign is that, it is important to be right on day one. It's not just a function of looking backward. It's an important function to look forward," Obama said to audience cheers.
Obama followed his criticism of Clinton with a one-two punch by taking a swipe at her concerns about Iran's current regime and the country's alleged support of terrorism.
"If we didn't want Iran to have influence in Iraq, we shouldn't have installed the current government, or went to war in the first place," Obama said.
Clinton said if she were elected president she would move toward gradually withdrawing troops over the course of 12 months, but she would not commit to a timetable for a complete withdrawal from the region.
"I will begin to withdraw troops within 60 days. One to two brigades a month and I expect to have all [troops] out within the year," she said. "It's imperative that we plan and execute this right. We have to draw up a plan so we can withdraw. We have to be very clear with people that not only are we going to bring our young men and women and our equipment out we need to think what we are going to do with more than 100,000 civilians who are there working for businesses.... I certainly hope to have all out within a year."
Obama said that was not good enough. He promised to immediately withdraw troops and end the war.
"I don't just want to end the war I want to end the mindset that got us into this war in the first place," Obama said, to which Blitzer, the CNN moderator, told Clinton "that is a clear swipe at you."
The two candidates' most heated exchange came on the topic of immigration reform. Obama stopped short of calling Clinton a "flip-flopper" for supporting, then opposing, a measure that would allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, an issue Obama backs.
"Senator Clinton gave a number of different answers over the course of six weeks on this," Obama said, turning to Clinton. "Initially, you said you were for it, then you said you were against it."
Clinton shot back, telling Obama he was "asked the same question and could not answer it. So this is a difficult issue." Clinton then added she co-sponsored immigration reform in 2004 before Barack came to the Senate."
Despite the jabs from Obama, Clinton proved she, too, is capable of getting a crowd fired up. When she was confronted about her husband's eight years in the White House, she defended his record saying, "I'm very proud of my husband's administration. It did take a Clinton to clean up after the first [President George H.W.] Bush and I think it may take another one to clean up after the second Bush."
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a national co-chair of Clinton's presidential campaign, said immediately after the debate he was "relieved it was civil."
"I'm glad the candidates stuck to the issues," Villaraigosa said. "To me, Senator Clinton spoke confidently about immigration and health care reform and I believe that is going to resonate with voters come Tuesday."
Before he wrapped up, Blitzer asked Clinton and Obama whether they would consider running as a "dream ticket" and fulfill the wishes of "many" Democrats.
The question was by far a huge crowd pleaser, as the audience cheered loudly and a camera showed Stevie Wonder jumping out of his seat applauding.
"Would you consider an Obama-Clinton or a Clinton-Obama ticket down the road?" Blitzer asked.
"Obviously, there's a big difference between the two ..." Obama said. "We've got a lot more road to travel, and so I think it's premature for either of us to start speculating about vice presidents, et cetera."
"Well, I have to agree with everything Barack just said," Clinton added.
Jason Leopold is senior editor and reporter for Truthout. He received a Project Censored award in 2007 for his story on Halliburton's work in Iran.