On the wall of his Senate office, near his desk, Sen. Barack Obama has enshrined a photograph of boxer Muhammad Ali at mid ring. I was reminded of that picture as I watched him employ The Champ's various tactics—the Rope-a-Dope, the Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee, the Shuffle—as he fought Sen. Hillary Clinton to a draw in Cleveland in what is likely to be the last major bout of the Democratic race.
Bottom line, on my scorecard: a tie at best, and certainly not enough of a win for Clinton to change the dynamics of the nomination contest, which Obama is poised to lock up.
Clinton wanted to be Joe Frazier, the relentless one, glaring across the ring for 90 minutes at the infuriating man with quick moves and tassels on his high-laced shoes. She complained about the referees, charged ahead as she had to do. She devastated him with a few power punches—but not enough of them—and didn't level him.
Here's how I scored the bout. Clinton won the first rounds of wonkish sparring on health care. For Democratic voters, a flat unequivocal promise to cover everybody trumps Obama's complexity on the topic. Also, health care is what Hillary knows, above all, and Obama is saddled with a proposal that is too cute by half. He knows it, too.
But no sooner had she won the first two rounds than she took time out to whine about the referees and the official scorers, asking: 'how come I get all the first questions and Ali-Obama over here gets all the easy ones?' She cited "Saturday Night Live," that noted font of media criticism, for the proposition that all any reporter ever asked Obama was whether he wanted "another pillow." This was not the kind of red flag you want to wave at the bull-shaped and bull-minded Tim Russert.
Plus it made Clinton look weak—which is something she manifestly is not.
Then she went on to lose the NAFTA round. Fact is, it was her husband who did the deal, and if she was against it, she didn't say so at the time, or until very recently. Desperate, she cited the testimony of David Gergen, of Harvard, for the proposition that she was a NAFTA foe. Gergen is a brilliant guy, but not a real vote-mover in Ohio.
Then the questioners got involved. Referee Russert, perhaps peeved at Clinton's attack earlier, called her to center ring to, in effect, inspect her gloves. She had made all kinds of promises about job creation in his hometown of Buffalo, but they had not materialized. Why should anyone believe her economic promises about the country?
Given the chance to say that Obama was NOT prepared to be commander-in-chief, Clinton once again flinched, as she did in Austin last week. She kept talking about her own qualifications, but didn't say the one thing that would have made headlines: that Obama was not up to the job.
Given the opening, Obama, who had been largely in a shell to that point, attacked her with a flurry of punches. Hillary was "ready on day one," he mocked—"ready to give in to George Bush on Day One. She facilitated and enabled this individual."
Standing eight count.
Clinton scored again by pointing out that Obama, a chair of a Senate subcommittee, held no oversight hearings on Afghanistan. He blithely acknowledged that fact, but pointed out that he was busy running for president. Clinton didn't accuse him of dereliction. Perhaps she sensed that it wouldn't work: what's more important than running for president?
They clinch at mid ring on idealism, on words-versus-action, on who can claim what credit for the Clinton years. In Rope-a-Dope mode, Obama concedes the obvious again and again. "I am absolutely clear that hope is not enough," he says, thereby undercutting in one sentence most of Clinton's criticism of the past six weeks on the trail.
He does the double-clutch shuffle on other topics. He cleverly says that, if nominated, he will "sit down" with John McCain to discuss financing of the fall campaign—thus evading an answer about whether he would keep his commitment to public financing.
Finally, Clinton and Russert back Obama into a corner on the question—bound to come up now—about Louis Farrakhan, the oleaginous anti-Semite and anti-white leader of the Nation of Islam.
It turns out that Obama's church minister has given the "minister" a lifetime achievement award. Does Obama object to that? Float like a butterfly: Obama "denounces" Farrakhan's anti-Semitism. Obama says that he is friend of the Jews because he wants to repair the ruptured relations between blacks and Jews. He says that many of his closest advisors and supporters are Jews. But he doesn't flatly, comprehensively, denounce or reject the man he calls "Minister Farrakhan"—a term of respect that has wide currency in the black community.
But then Clinton closes in, like Frazier. Obama is in the corner. She says that in her 2000 Senate race, she had been given some racist support, and rejected it out of hand. Why wouldn't Obama "reject" Farrakhan?
"I don't see a difference," Obama answered smoothly. And then, a bit lordly, a bit condescendingly, he offered to amend his statement. If the word you want is reject, "I would reject and denounce!" What precisely he was rejecting wasn't quite clear.
But he got out of the corner and Clinton—who was shooting dagger-like glances at him all night, could only smile a tight frustrated smile.