WASHINGTON -- There have been enough Democratic presidential debates to conclude that White House hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has not mastered the short answer format. Obama demonstrated at Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations hearing with Gen. David Petraeus and Iraq Ambassador Ryan Crocker he also has trouble with questions.
The long-winded Obama, who bills himself as a consensus builder, wasted an opportunity to show how it could work.
Each member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had seven minutes to question Petraeus and Crocker about the Iraq War. Obama used about six minutes of his time to lecture Petraeus and Crocker that the surge is of modest success given the cost and the Iraq central government is ineffectual -- points he has been making in speeches and debates. As Obama was wrapping up, he said, "That, of course, now leaves me very little time to ask questions, and that's unfortunate."
"That's true, Senator," piped up Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee chairman and a rival for the Democratic nomination.
Petraeus never got to answer Obama's 266-word question. Rushed at the end, Obama asked about benchmarks not met. Crocker said, "Senator, I described for Senator Sununu a little bit ago some of the things that I think are going to be very important as we move ahead."
Obama tossed a softball: "Can you repeat those?
Biden asked Crocker to summarize and racing the clock, Crocker got in 215 words before Obama's time was up.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) followed Obama. He told Petraeus and Crocker, "As you have found, our hearings are more about listening to ourselves than listening to our witnesses."
Today Obama will deliver a new Iraq policy speech at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. He will offer, I was told by the campaign, new proposals on troop withdrawal, how to conduct diplomacy in the region, the cost of the war and solutions to the humanitarian crisis in Iraq.
Obama was not going to waste new insights on Iraq with Petraeus and Crocker.
There is a major discussion going on in the Democratic primary race over the importance of experience -- Obama has the shortest track record -- and if judgment trumps experience -- Obama's position.
Writing in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Obama says in this tense era, "it is time for a president who can build consensus here at home" in order to chart an ambitious foreign policy course.
At the hearing, Obama complained about the time constraint. But it was his choice not to figure out how to ask even one thoughtful question and leave time for an answer. He chose not to show that he is interested in finding a way to engage with one of the nation's top generals. He chose not to grill Crocker about the millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance the U.S. is giving to Iraq.
When Obama had a chance he did not use it to show, not tell.