Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Democrats and box populi

Regarding last night’s historic Democratic debate, which featured regular folks posting questions via YouTube, here’s my thumbnail review: Thumbs-up, with an asterisk.

Thumbs-up, because the ’08 candidates had to field a wide range of citizen questions that were, at various times, heartfelt, provocative, impertinent, irreverent, and insouciant.

In other words, they were often framed in ways that journalists would not have dared to attempt, for fear of being scolded later by some candidate’s flak. For instance, Hillary Clinton was asked whether a woman president would be taken seriously in Arab countries that treat their own women as second-class citizens; John Edwards was asked whether it’s fair that he opposes gay marriage on religious grounds; Barack Obama was asked whether he considers himself authentically black; everybody was asked why the quality of the balloting process varies so much from state to state, in an era when a Starbucks latte tastes exactly the same regardless of locale. I also liked the Michigan guy who brandished his jumbo assault rifle and demanded to know whether the Democratic candidates would protect his “baby” – thereby prompting Joe Biden to stray off-script and grumble, “If that’s his ‘baby,’ then he needs help.”

But I’ll add an asterisk, because these questions were merely a fraction of the 2700 submitted to CNN. In other words, the gatekeepers of the “old media” functioned as editors, culling the “new media” for quality queries. I’d bet the ranch that hundreds of the videographers lobbed open-ended softballs, along the lines of: “What would you do to ensure that our children have more economic opportunity?” I’d also bet that many others hailed from the dark side. All the more reason for the pros to function as arbiters – as CNN will do again, when the Republican candidates face the YouTube citizenry in September. It makes sense to me. If the Internet is indeed today’s version of the Wild West, then give it a sheriff.

Anyway, regarding last night: If Hillary Clinton’s rivals don’t start taking her on, if they don’t find a way to trim her commanding lead, this Democratic race will be over in a hurry. At this point, seven candidates are eating her dust.

In a few short months, she has managed – despite her ’02 vote authorizing an Iraq invasion - to remake herself as an antiwar candidate. As recently as last year, she was still opposing any troop withdrawal timeline. She was against it then, and she’s for it now. But apparently the Democratic primary electorate is taking this flip-flop in stride; the latest ABC-Washington Post poll reports that she leads Obama, by 51 to 29 percent, among those who want to pull out all the troops – and this is despite the fact that Obama opposed the war long before President Bush ever started it.

Last night, she again polished her new credentials (“I put forth a comprehensive three-point plan to get our troops out of Iraq, and it does start with moving them out as soon as possible”). At another point, she reminded people that she has been asking the Pentagon to map a pullout plan and to share that information with her; she also mentioned proudly that the Pentagon has accused her of emboldening the enemy. Also last night, she aired a campaign video that borrowed a Bob Dylan ‘60s protest riff: One placard asked how many WMDs had been found in Iraq, and the next placard said “Zero.” (Wait…hadn’t she voted to authorize the war on the belief that Saddam Hussein did have WMDs? Doesn’t this mean that SHE screwed up?)

She wasn’t challenged on any of this – except once, when Obama uttered one passing remark: “I think it’s terrific that she’s asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in.” Hillary didn’t bother to rebut it, nobody else followed up on it, and the moment passed.

She was pushed a lot harder by a YouTube questioner, during the early moments of the debate. A guy from California asked how she’d define the word “liberal,” and whether she’d use the term to describe herself. In a sense, this was a great question, because it tested whether Hillary might have the political courage to take on the Republicans who have succeeded, over the past 30 years, in reducing the word to a pejorative.

Well, she didn’t. Instead she said this: “It is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head…”

By who? In what way? For what presumably craven purpose?

She skipped all that. She then said, “I prefer the term ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning…So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive.”

Wait…the word “liberal” doesn’t have a real American meaning? By simply ceding the word, doesn’t that validate the frequent GOP insinuation that a “liberal” is somehow unAmerican? And doesn’t she sound a bit defensive, the way she twice felt compelled to slap “American” onto her preferred label?

That answer was a far cry from what John F. Kennedy said in September of 1960: "What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'liberal'?...If by a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'liberal,' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal.'"

Hillary's caution, as evidenced in her answer, still bugs some Democrats. On the other hand, last night she again demonstrated her skill at defusing inconvenient questions, and turning them to her advantage. A Democratic committeeman from Illinois, via his video, asked her whether the election of another Clinton (after a Bush, a Clinton, and another Bush) would “constitute the type of change in Washington that so many people in the heartland are yearning for.” This was the 28-year-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton Dynasty Question, and she promptly squashed it:

“Well, I think it was a problem that Bush was elected in 2000. (Pause for laughter) I actually thought that somebody else was elected in that election, but…” (Pause for applause)

In other words, she undercut the entire premise by suggesting that, if not for the ’00 Florida election overtime crisis, nobody would be talking about any two-family dynasty; and, simply by bringing up the ’00 events, she tossed raw meat to the liberal Democratic voters. Then she played the nostalgia card by invoking her husband’s tenure. Then she lauded the other candidates on stage, and said they all would have been better presidents than the (apparently illegitimate) current Bush. By this time, the rapturous audience wasn’t even aware that she had never answered the guy’s question about whether a second Clinton would actually be able to change Washington. (Fringe candidate Mike Gravel, moments later, said in one of his trademark harangues that Hillary would not be able to change anything, but nobody listens to him anyway.)

One last observation about this debate, at least for now: None of the Democrats gave substantive answers to what was probably the best question of the evening.

“Mitch from Philadelphia,” who said he was no fan of the Iraq war, nevertheless asked how it was feasible to simply pull out now, and leave the Iraqis to their violent fate, with perhaps Iran and Syria waiting in the wings. “I mean,” he asked, “do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself?”

Biden, as always, took a decent stab at that question. Obama said something about “a diplomatic surge” in the region, but little else. Democrats, if they want to demonstrate that their national security credentials are in order, will have to persuade voters that they can pull out the troops responsibly, with an eye toward securing the region in the long term. Mitch from Philadelphia is hardly the only American who is hungry for an answer.