Clinton, Obama and the yes-or-no question

If you're going to accuse somebody of equivocating on a question, shouldn't you be ready with an unequivocal answer yourself?

Published November 16, 2007 1:45PM (EST)

Memo to Barack Obama: If you're going to go after somebody for equivocating on a question, you'd better be sure you're ready to give an unequivocal answer yourself.

At the beginning of last night's Democratic presidential debate, Obama took Hillary Clinton to task for not giving the American people "straight answers to tough questions." His first example: the question whether states ought to be offering driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. "We saw in the last debate that it took not just that debate, but two more weeks before we could a clear answer, in terms of where her position was," Obama said.

So a few minutes later, Wolf Blitzer pressed Obama on what he called the "logical follow-up": "I take it, Senator, you support giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Is that right?"

Having raised the driver's license issue, Obama responded by arguing that it was really just a distraction.

Obama: When I was a state senator in Illinois, I voted to require that illegal aliens get trained, get a license, get insurance to protect public safety. That was my intention. And -- but I have to make sure that people understand. The problem we have here is not driver's licenses. Undocumented workers do not come here to drive. They don't go -- they're not coming here to go to the In-N-Out Burger. That's not the reason they're here. They're here to work. And so instead of being distracted by what has now become a wedge issue, let's focus on actually solving the problem that this administration, the Bush administration, had done nothing about it.

Blitzer: Well, let's go through everybody because I want to be precise. I want to make sure the viewers and those of us who are here fully understand all of your positions on this -- assuming there isn't going to be comprehensive immigration reform. Do you support or oppose driver's licenses for illegal immigrants?

Obama: I am not proposing that that's what we do. What I'm saying is that we can't ...

People in the audience laughed, maybe because "I'm not proposing that's what we do" sounded an awful lot like "I did not say that it should be done," which is how Clinton hedged her own bets on driver's licenses during the Oct. 30 debate in Philadelphia.

Obama: No, no, no, no. Look, I have already said, I support the notion that we have to deal with public safety and that driver's licenses at the state level can make that happen. But what I also know ...

Blitzer: All right --

Obama: But what I also know, Wolf, is that if we keep on getting distracted by this problem, then we are not solving it.

Blitzer gave up and put the "yes or no" question to the other Democrats on the stage. By the time he circled back to Obama, the senator from Illinois was finally ready with the one-word answer: "Yes." Unfortunately for him, so was Clinton: "No."

Does Clinton's unequivocal answer -- coming as it did after more than two weeks of equivocating -- neutralize the driver's license issue for her? Probably not. But Obama's equivocating -- coming, as it did, after he gave a fairly unequivocal answer at the last debate -- suggests that he can't capitalize on the issue anymore himself.

The upside for Obama? Once he finally got his one-word answer out, he was able to reframe the issue so that it fit within his argument that he's the candidate who can actually accomplish the change everyone else is promising. "I'll tell you," he said, "I am going to be fighting for comprehensive immigration reform, and we shouldn't pose the question that, somehow, we can't achieve that," he said. Obama returned to the theme later, on a question regarding the handling of nuclear waste. "Don't keep on assuming that we can't do something," he told Blitzer. "I mean, this is about the third time where you said, assuming we can't do it, what's our option? I'm running for president because I think we can do it."

It was as close to an inspiring moment as you'll find in most debates. And it provided, at least for a moment, reason to believe that Obama really is a more effective candidate when he's laying out his own vision for the future than when he's going hard after someone else.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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