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Reminding Voters Which
Clinton is Now Onstage

The Democratic candidates met at Dartmouth last night.

A central and vexing challenge in running for the same office your husband once held is demonstrating that you are your own person. During last night's Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) seemed to dispatch that with a couple easy quips.

It came late in the two-hour debate aired on MSNBC, after many viewers may have switched channels or nodded off. Tim Russert, the "Meet the Press" host who moderated the debate, tossed out one of those hypotheticals meant to throw candidates off their scripts. It came from a guest on his show once, he said, who had suggested there should be a presidential exception to a torture ban in extreme circumstances -- such as capturing al-Qaeda's number 3, who knows the location of a big bomb about to go off. "We have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him," Russert quoted the guest saying.

Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) quickly said no, there should not be a presidential exception. And Russert then turned to Clinton, who agreed. "As a matter of policy," she said, "it cannot be American policy, period."

Then Russert sprang the trap. "The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year," he said. "So he disagrees with you."

Hillary Clinton paused a moment. "Well," she said with a smile, "he's not standing here right now."

The line sent the audience off. Russert tried to press the point.

"So there is a disagreement," he said.

"Well," she replied wryly, "I'll talk to him later."

Just like that, she had the crowd and she had established who is really in charge these days in the Clinton household. Bill can say what he wants on Russert's show. Hillary plans to be president. No worry here that Bill is secretly pulling the strings. If anything, worry that, uh oh, he's now in trouble at home. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, cited that exchange on the conservative magazine's Web site. "She might have had her strongest moment during the torture question," he wrote last night.

The dynamic between a former president and would-be future president in the same marriage, of course, is unique in American history and endlessly fascinating to watch. The public clues are scrutinized and dissected and analyzed to death: How much use will she make use of him on the campaign trail? How will she exploit his popularity among Democratic base voters? How will she sidestep the negative baggage from his various scandals? How will she differentiate herself from him?

Biden at one point effectively tried to remind Democratic voters of the Clinton baggage, but stepped on his message a bit when it seemed he was referring to scandals and then quickly retreated. "There's a lot of very good things that come with all the great things that President Clinton did, but there's also a lot of the old stuff that comes back," Biden said. He quickly interjected: "When I say old stuff, I'm referring to policy -- policy."

Hillary Clinton gave the expected answer to some of those questions last night. "I thought Bill was a pretty good president," she said in response to a question about the drawbacks of political dynasties in a democracy. "The values that he acted on on behalf of our country, both at home and abroad, are ones that stand the test of time. But look, I'm running on my own. I'm going to the people on my own."

Already she has taken different positions from her husband on some key issues. At a debate sponsored by the AFL-CIO, she agreed that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Bill Clinton pushed through the Senate needs to be "fixed," although she tried to blame President Bush for its implementation. In other settings, she has said she would scrap the don't ask, don't tell policy the former president enacted and allow gays to serve openly in the military.

And last night, there was a surreal moment when she was asked the fact that her husband's foundation and library refuse to disclose the names of the people who have chipped in, sometimes in the millions of dollars, any of whom might have a potential reason for currying favor with the family of the next president. Russert asked her why not voluntarily make those donor lists public even if the law does not require it given the potential for conflict. She answered as if she had nothing at all to do with her husband's library and foundation.

"You'll have to ask them," she said.

"What's your recommendation?" Russert asked.

"Well, I don't talk about my private conversations with my husband," she responded.

The question Russert posed on terrorism and torture stemmed from his interview with Bill Clinton that aired on "Meet the Press" on Sept. 24, 2006. Amid a debate at the time about the proper limits of interrogations, Russert asked the former president if he would outlaw waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other tactics. Clinton said he would adopt "the generally accepted definitions of the Geneva Convention" but then raised without prompting the ticking-bomb exception.

"Every one of us can imagine the following scenario," Clinton posited. "We get lucky, we get the number three guy in al-Qaeda and we know there's a big bomb going off in America in three days and we know this guy knows where it is. Don't we have the right and the responsibility to beat it out of him?" He went on to suggest a presidential exception to the torture ban for such a situation. "They could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon or could guarantee the submission of that sort of thing post facto to the intelligence court, just like we do now with wiretaps." The point, though, was that such a rare possibility did not justify the sweeping powers the Bush administration wanted.

Hillary Clinton's answer allowed for some wiggle room. She said such an exception should not be policy . She did not say she would not authorize it if she were confronted with such a situation. "These hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great, big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone," she said. "And I think it's dangerous to go down this path."

Which sounds like someone who thinks she's going to be president and doesn't want to be locked in by Tim Russert, al-Qaeda's number three or even her own husband.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  September 27, 2007; 10:25 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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