Sometimes the public measure of presidential mettle comes down to a single image: Richard Nixon sweating through a debate with John F. Kennedy; Jimmy Carter fending off a killer swamp rabbit; or Michael Dukakis posing in an M1 Abrams battle tank.
Will Hillary Clinton's dissembling over drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants turn out to be her Dukakis-in-a-tank moment? If so, then it will be manifestly unfair but not because the senator from New York is striving to be the first chief executive whose spouse would be a first gentleman.
What was unfair was that Clinton was the first to field a question from Tim Russert at the Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia on Oct. 30 about New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer's controversial plan. In her answer, she seemed to confirm what she had told the Nashua Telegraph's editorial board Oct. 16. Giving illegal immigrants licenses "makes a lot of sense" because it helps fill the vacuum left by the federal government's failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
But then Clinton went Clintonian. In response to criticism from Sen. Chris Dodd, she stated, "I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Gov. Spitzer is trying to do it."
Answering Dodd's charge a repeat of her quote to the newspaper, really that she said it made sense, she replied, "No I didn't." Then answering Russert again about the plan's sensibility, she said, "It makes a lot of sense," though it's not necessarily "the best thing for any governor to do."
In the space of three minutes, she covered at least three positions on a simple yes or no question. Three weeks later, following a furor over her dissimulation, the voting public finally learned she's against drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants for the time being.
Here's the unfair part. Russert then put the question to all seven candidates for the Democratic nomination who participated in the debate at Drexel University: "Does anyone here believe that an illegal immigrant should not have a driver's license?"
The six men surrounding Clinton looked about sheepishly. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Omicron Persei 8, asked for clarification. Only Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut raised his hand in mild dissent.
Driving is a privilege, Dodd said. Extending licenses to illegal immigrants is "troublesome," as though anyone who flouts our nation's immigration laws would somehow be deterred from getting behind the wheel because the Department of Motor Vehicles says they aren't privileged enough.
The real story from the Drexel debate should have been that six Democratic presidential hopefuls see nothing wrong with licensing illegal immigrants. Or at least, as in the case of Clinton, they see it as the not-best thing that sometimes makes a lot of sense.
Over the past year, conventional wisdom has held that the immigration issue is toxic for Republicans. And there's no doubt that some of the corrosive rhetoric in the immigration debate has destroyed GOP support among Hispanics that Republicans have struggled for three decades to build.
But the Republican problem, serious as it is, is largely one of style of using the right language and framing the debate properly. The American people are frustrated by the government's failure to enforce immigration laws, a failure that, as the 9-11 commission detailed in a 2004 monograph, terrorists have devastatingly exploited. They want current immigration laws enforced, not new laws that reward immigration scofflaws.
For Democrats, however, the immigration issue presents a problem of substance. A Rasmussen poll conducted in the wake of the Drexel debate found that 77 percent of Americans oppose granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, including 68 percent of those who identified themselves as Democrats. Facing withering opposition, Spitzer withdrew the plan last week.
So when six Democratic candidates stuff their hands in their pockets when given the opportunity to signal their opposition to this policy, it's a sign of just how out of touch they are with public sentiment. And that image, more than a bumbling Hillary Clinton, is the one that should have emerged from Philadelphia.