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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The New Hampshire Debate

posted by on September 27 at 11:27 AM

I blogged a bit about it last night, but one moment that stuck with me (and a lot of other people) was Hillary Clinton’s response on torture. Here’s the question:

RUSSERT: I want to move to another subject, and this involves a comment that a guest on Meet the Press made, and I want to read it, as follows: Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We get the number three guy in Al Qaida. We know there’s a big bomb going off in America in three days and we know this guy knows where it is.

RUSSERT: Don’t we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.

Obama was asked to answer first:

OBAMA: America cannot sanction torture. It’s a very straightforward principle, and one that we should abide by. Now, I will do whatever it takes to keep America safe. And there are going to be all sorts of hypotheticals and emergency situations and I will make that judgment at that time. But what we cannot do is have the president of the United States state, as a matter of policy, that there is a loophole or an exception where we would sanction torture. I think that diminishes us and it sends the wrong message to the world.

Then came Biden, who basically agreed with Obama. And then came Clinton:

RUSSERT: Senator Clinton, this is the number three man in Al Qaida. We know there’s a bomb about to go off, and we have three days, and we know this guy knows where it is. Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?

CLINTON: You know, Tim, I agree with what Joe and Barack have said. As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy period… 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. And I think it’s dangerous to go down this path.

This set up one of the most interesting moments of the debate:

RUSSERT: The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year. So he disagrees with you.

CLINTON: Well, he’s not standing here right now.


RUSSERT: So there is a disagreement?

CLINTON: Well, I’ll talk to him later.


The exchange is fascinating because it highlights, again, how fine a line Clinton has to walk on two meta-issues: Being a woman running for president, and being the wife of Bill Clinton running for president.

Hillary Clinton generally does everything she can to allay the reptilian-brain fears that a woman can’t be as good a defender of the nation as a man. But last night she passed over a huge opportunity to appear tougher than most of the men on stage. She could very easily have embraced the “beat it out of him” idea in limited scenarios such as the one Russert presented, and in the process scored some points with people who doubt her toughness. Instead, Clinton reached for a higher principle—not a bad move, either, although it’s been pointed out that she hasn’t always been against torture in such instances.

But then, as a result of reaching for a higher principle, she got caught looking less tough then her husband, who actually was president and, according to Russert, favored the right to get tough on people in such circumstances. But: Then she joked about planning to straighten her husband out later—suggesting that she easily could.

What’s a reptilian brain to think? Hillary Clinton doesn’t support torture in the “ticking time bomb” scenario, even though her husband apparently does, and she believes she’s in the superior position (politically, philosophically, decision-making-wise) in their relationship.

For people thinking with their higher brains, Clinton probably came out of this exchange looking pretty good. But for people—especially men—who are thinking with their lower reptilian brains, I’m not so sure.

And since there’s now presumably video of both torture answers (the Hillary answer and the Bill answer) I expect this all to show up in a Republican him vs. her commercial if she wins the nomination.

RSS icon Comments


I pretty much hate the question. It just legitimizes the idea that there are two sides to this issue.

Posted by Gitai | September 27, 2007 11:31 AM

the question is annoying. but not as annoying as trying to answer to please the both those thinking with their, er... higher brains and those thinking with their lower reptilian brains.

who knows what the low would think? they might like the hillary can stand up to bill. or they might not think that's the place of a woman. or they might thik that bill will set her straight? who knows? it's lame to have to think about people who think that way.

Posted by infrequent | September 27, 2007 11:42 AM

I think all of them would torture the guy in a heartbeat. They all allude to the fact that it's an inappropriate question, because it would force them to "show their cards" when there is no reason to.

In the case of torture, with this scenario, the correct answer is not the correct answer.

Posted by Mahtli69 | September 27, 2007 11:48 AM

It's stupid that apparently none of them included the answer "and torture doesn't work" in their response. Yes, the moral issue is strong, but so is the pointlessness of it.

Posted by Gabriel | September 27, 2007 11:57 AM

@4 actually, I think it was Biden who said, in those words, that torture doesn't work. And he cited McCain having said that, when he was tortured, he was willing to say anything, true or no, to get them to stop.

I loved that moment in the debate, though, between Russert and Hillary. I think it was an important reminder to stop holding Bill Clinton up against Hillary's campaign. As everyone involved with the Hillpaign has been saying forever, this is a campaign about what Hillary is capable of, and what Hillary would do, not Bill.

She's been very careful at several turns (particularly with Don't Ask, Don't Tell) to clarify where she has disagreed with her husband, so this shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone paying attention. That said, I'm sure the men of the world who hate Hillary for being a powerful, intelligent feminist will have no greater love for her insisting she can set her husband straight. But, in terms of her campaign audience, they were never going to vote for her anyway.

Posted by kim | September 27, 2007 12:06 PM

Tim Russert is such a hack.

Posted by laterite | September 27, 2007 12:07 PM

Where the reptile-brains might find fault in Hillary's refusal to answer certain hypothetical questions, I tend to think that's a sign of her political acumen. She's 100% right -- answering a hypothetical question is fruitless because it removes perhaps the most important factor from a potential decision: context.

People like George W. Bush are comfy making complicated scenarios unrealistically simple by responding to painfully reductive hypothetical questions. It reveals them either as naive simpletons, or hubristic egomaniacs who (falsely) believe they've got the world figured out. Hillary gets that complex situations are complex, and context is key to making sense of them and choosing the proper course of action.

Posted by mjg | September 27, 2007 12:10 PM

Tim Russert is not just a hack, he's kind of sickening in his efforts to please the Red Bushies sometimes.

Want torture? Then move to someplace like Burma, Tim.

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 27, 2007 12:10 PM

@7 - Like Hillary or not (I don't), you must admit that she is, by far, the most intelligent, prepared, and capable candidate for President.

Posted by Mahtli69 | September 27, 2007 12:14 PM

@4, kim is right, though i think it was Dodd who cited McCain. Biden and Clinton both mentioned a group of generals who pleaded with them to stop using torture if elected, and several candidates mentioned that torture, aside from being morally wrong, just doesn't work.

Posted by spencer | September 27, 2007 12:24 PM

All I want is a candidate that has the balls to call out this question as the journalistic crap that it is. First of all, the senario is total BS, as torture doesn't guarantee an answer or even a correct one at that.

Second, there is no way that if there was a bomb somewhere that we would have the "terrorist" responsible in the amount of time before it went off.

I want someone to be like "you know what Tim, I don't answer questions proposed by 6th graders with no working knowledge of national security or terrorism in general. Why don't you ask me how I would deal with Aliens or Michael Jackson attacking Vermont. Asshat."

Posted by Original Monique | September 27, 2007 12:32 PM


I don't need to "admit" it; I believe it. And I actually like Hillary. :)

I think if you re-read what I wrote, you'll see I was pro-Hillary. I'm vocally anti-Obama, OTOH.

Posted by mjg | September 27, 2007 12:33 PM

Or she could have pointed out that we aren't living in an episode of '24' and moved on.

Posted by Jack | September 27, 2007 12:41 PM

@12 - mjg- sorry, I was telling Sloggers at-large to "admit it". It is pretty clear that you are pro-Hillary.

If she wins, I will know the country is in capable hands. It's like trusting the pilot of an airplane you're riding in. The problem for me, in this case, is the airplane is a bomber, and she's gonna drop the bombs wherever she feels like it. But, I'm sure we'll land safely.

Posted by Mahtli69 | September 27, 2007 1:10 PM

What we continue to hear from Hillary's opponents is this election is all about electability and Democrats winning the White House. Hillary showed beyond a shadow of a doubt last night that she is the one that is most electable in the general election. Her answers were thoughtful, pragmatic and most importantly presidential.

Hillary's ability to command the stage and the questions is unparalleled. Her insistance not to answer the hypotheticals is exactly what a leader should do. That is what has gotten this current administration into such a mess on the world stage. Tim's attempt to get the candidates to sabre rattle over Iran is diplorable and would definitely come back as a thirty second attack ad in the general election.

Tim tried to set up many traps for the candidates to give the Republican's campaign fodder for the general election. Unlike many of the candidates on stage, Hillary did not fall for it. The attacks on Hillary while being done with some respect should also be looked at carefully for the hypocracy in many of them.

Keep up the great work Senator Clinton. You convince me more and more every day why I am working so hard to get you the nomination.

Posted by Greg Rodriguez | September 27, 2007 1:39 PM

Comment #11 - "the scenario is total B.S." - Amen! I think what the exchange with Hillary actually shows is that Tim Russert is a schmuck who is in love, like so many "journalists," with the "gotcha" question. I believe Sean Hannity uses a similar technique.

Posted by bobbo | September 27, 2007 1:40 PM

I don't think it shows up Hillary any more or less than the rest of the candidates. Bill Clinton is a Democratic icon, and what he says will be cited by Democratic candidates from now until the Democratic party dies. People forget that Clinton ran from the right in '92--he was one of the few candidates who originally favored the first Iraq War.

Foreign policy wise, he's always been to the right of the peacenik wing of the party, and for that reason was acceptable to your Reagan Democrats, who voted for him in droves. (As we've learned with Bush, draft dodging doesn't prevent people from thinking of you as tough on national defense).

It was Alan Dershowitz--hardly a conservative--who originally proposed this scenario, and I agree that it's a little ridiculous, but there's a kernel of truth there.

It sucks, but in war you have to do some nasty things. Case in point--during WWII, the OSS sent a spy into Nazi Germany, during the war (former baseball player and polymath Moe Berg (a Jew, no less)) to attend a lecture by a prominent German physicist. Berg's orders were to listen to the physicist's talk, and if the man betrayed any indication that the Germans were close to developing a nuclear weapon, to kill him. Right there in the lecture hall, consequences be damned.

Murdering a civilian scientist--now that's worse that torture, you could argue, but I don't think anyone would deny the importance of preventing the Nazis from getting the bomb.

As Berg's superior put it, "In war, a man's life isn't worth a damn." And if you see this struggle with Al Qaeda as a war...and it sure seemed like one on 9/11, then...

Clinton (Bill) has a good grasp of that. And it's a little disheartening that the candidates didn't at least show some understanding of the morally ambiguous choices they--or any President--will be sure to face.

Posted by Seth | September 27, 2007 1:55 PM

While this question shouldn't really be dignified with a response that doesn't point out how full of shit the whole scenario is, I like the answers that were given.

As for my reptile brain, I either don't have one or it doesn't get off on beating the crap out of people, because Hillary's response makes me like her more. My gut response to her is actually much better than my conclusions once I think things through rationally. That's when I realize that she's being backed by the worst status quo elements of the Democratic Party and that anyone but her needs to win.

Posted by Cascadian | September 27, 2007 2:01 PM

@7 - you are a great writer
@11 - lol [last paragraph]

@Eli - I like your point, but if she would have been for the 'torture', you know everyone in your so-called "blogosphere" would be going ape shit with the OMG HILARY IS ALL UPS INTO TORTURE ZOMG!!!! Which could be far worse.

As for the question posed, I think it was a trick question and it totally got the ZING(!) he was going for when he announced that William Jefferson Clinton was responsible for the scenario.

Posted by Lake | September 27, 2007 2:02 PM



Posted by Big Sven | September 27, 2007 3:29 PM

true dat, Big Sven. it's a myth that it does. Now, interrogation does - but that's more asking questions, bonding with the prisoner, more like The Closer approach.

Posted by Will in Seattle | September 27, 2007 4:01 PM

I heard the Hillary exchange on the radio this morning and I had some visceral reactions about being mad that she was asked that at all, and then what she did with it.

First, there's the feminist indignation that she's compared to her husband, even if he is the most powerful democrat in many people's memory. And I tried to think about it terms of Bush Sr./Bush Jr. I'm not sure there were comparisons like that. Or even if there anyone gave either of them "gotcha" comparisons to Reagan.

Then there is the fact that her tone changed dramatically with her last statement - it became almost flirtatious. He's my man, I'll set him straight. Nevermind that she's had trouble with that in the past, it seemed sort of inappropriate.

But then I later realized that she was the one that pointed out that they were married. Russert didn't. If she'd answered the last question differently, it could have remained "comparison to a great Dem president" and not become personal like that.

Posted by amy! | September 27, 2007 5:27 PM

There was some show on ABC where which featured a women president and one of the plots was she had to decide to torture someone to get information were a bomb was. WJ Clinton indeed Russert, you saw it on TV.

Posted by xx | September 27, 2007 5:49 PM


Bonding, and scary evil shit:

Warning, if you go read KUBARK, you will not sleep well for weeks.

Posted by Big Sven | September 27, 2007 6:55 PM
Posted by Josh | September 27, 2007 10:43 PM

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