AUSTIN, Texas – Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama disagreed sharply over how to achieve universal health care, debated who is most ready to serve as commander in chief and argued over who can best change the country as the two Democrats appealed for support Thursday ahead of primaries in Texas and Ohio.
The debate began politely, but gathered force in the closing portions with pointed exchanges over substantive issues and the traits required of a president.
Obama answered the question first and talked about the trajectory of a life that began as the child of a single parent and now finds him as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. But it was Clinton who turned the question most to her advantage, alluding to the ordeal of her husband’s affair with a White House intern and his subsequent impeachment, but then shifting to say that what she went through paled in comparison to the challenges ordinary Americans face every day.
Reaching over to shake her rival’s hand, Clinton said she was “honored” to be on the stage with him. But she quickly refocused on the voters who may still be up for grabs here and in Ohio.
“Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine,” she said. “You know, we have strong support from our families and our friends. I just hope that we’ll be able to say the same thing about the American people, and that’s what this election should be about.”
The debate was the first of two for Clinton and Obama before the March 4 primaries here and in Ohio that will be critically important to her candidacy after Obama’s double-digit string of victories in contests since Super Tuesday. They will debate again in Cleveland next Tuesday. Both primaries are seen as must-wins for Clinton.
Clinton jabbed at Obama over his appropriation of words and phrases from the 2006 campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, something her campaign has called plagiarism.
“I think that if your candidacy is going to be about words, then they should be your own words,” she said. “That’s, I think, a very simple proposition. And, you know, lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in, it’s change you can Xerox.”
But the line fell flat in the hall, and Obama batted away the idea that taking the advice of one of his national campaign co-chairs was plagiarism as “silly.”
Obama earlier challenged Clinton’s charge that his campaign is more about talk than action. “Senator Clinton of late has said: ‘Let’s get real,’ ” he said. “The implication is that the people who’ve been voting for me or involved in my campaign are somehow delusional.”
As the audience laughed, he continued, referencing “the 20 million people who’ve been paying attention to 19 debates and the editorial boards all across the country at newspapers who have given me endorsements, including every major newspaper here in the state of Texas.”
The 90-minute debate was held on the campus of the University of Texas and sponsored by CNN, Univision and the Texas Democratic Party.
In opening statements, Clinton stressed her Texas connections dating back more than 30 years, while Obama hit hard on economic themes that have become an increasingly larger part of his message in recent days.
In the wake of Fidel Castro’s resignation, the two debated Cuba policy and whether they would meet Cuba’s new leader without preconditions. Clinton said no, Obama said yes, but said he would only do so with plenty of preparation.
But when the debate turned to their rival plans for reforming the health care system, the two continued what has been a long argument over how to achieve universal coverage. Clinton pressed again her charge that Obama’s plan, which does not require people to buy insurance, would leave 15 million uninsured. She also noted that his plan requires parents to obtain insurance for their children.
“If you do not have a plan that starts out attempting to achieve universal health care, you will be nibbled to death, and we will be back here with more and more people uninsured and rising costs,” she said.
Obama countered by pointing out that the Massachusetts plan for universal care, which includes a mandate, has run into problems that the state is now grappling with. “Understand that both of us seek to get universal health care. I have a substantive difference with Senator Clinton on how to get there,” he said.
But he went further, criticizing Clinton for the way she and her husband managed their efforts in 1993 and 1994 to reform the health care system. “Senator Clinton and the administration went behind closed doors, excluded the participation even of Democratic members of Congress who had slightly different ideas than the ones that Senator Clinton had put forward,” he said. “And, as a consequence, it was much more difficult to get Congress to cooperate. … I’m going to do things differently.”
With the battle over Ohio looming, Clinton took up the more populist tone that Obama has been adopting since the Wisconsin fight. Obama repeated his pledge to renegotiate trade accords, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of the biggest achievements of Bill Clinton’s presidency.
But this time, Clinton had a response. She said she would establish a new “trade prosecutor,” to ensure that labor, environmental and safety standards in existing trade deals are being enforced. She again called for a “time out” before pursuing additional free trade agreements to examine which treaties are working and which are not.
On the nation’s credit crunch, she stood by her proposal to declare a 90-day moratorium on mortgage foreclosures and a five-year interest rate freeze on existing, adjustable rate mortgages, despite withering criticism from economists – and from Obama – that the plan would wreck the housing market and send new mortgage rates into the stratosphere.
Asked whether Obama was prepared to serve as commander in chief, Clinton did not accuse her rival of lacking the experience for the role, saying it is up to voters to make that call. She repeated her description of herself as ready for the job on “day one,” and cited a litany of recent world events – including that day’s attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and recent elections in Pakistan – that would require a high level of understanding.
Obama said his candidacy is based on his belief that he is ready to be president. “I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think I was prepared to be commander in chief,” Obama said. “My number one job as president would be to keep the American people safe, and I will do whatever is required to accomplish that.”
Obama also said he was right on the question of Pakistan when he argued against banking on Gen. Pervez Musharraf to the exclusion of other Pakistani leaders.
“I have shown the judgment to lead,” Obama said.