Some thoughts on the latest Democratic presidential candidate debate, staged this morning on ABC News:
After two relatively raucous debates – I am referring, of course, to the August pander festivals sponsored by liberal bloggers and labor activists – the Democratic candidates clearly felt it was time to lighten up on the intramural bloodletting. This time, they were auditioning live in an auditorium filled with Iowans, and those good Democrats are earnest and serious and generally adverse to bad manners on stage. They also get to vote first, in the Democratic caucuses next January.
So it was amusing to hear John Edwards chastise George Stephanopoulos for asking tough questions about how the candidates differ on issues and message. “I know you’re trying to create a fight up here,” said Edwards – the same candidate who, in previous debates, has been laboring to gain ground by creating fights up there.
But Edwards, who lately has been widely criticized for seeming too “angry” and too divisive, suddenly surfaced today more as a uniter than a divider – to the point where he was even stealing his rivals’ lines. During a discussion about the Iraq war, a topic that typically prompts him to hurl knives at Hillary Clinton for her refusal to renounce her pro-war authorization vote, he instead switched to reconciliation mode and said: “Any Democratic president will end this war. The differences between us…are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates.” That’s a standard Hillary line, virtually verbatim.
Meanwhile, Hillary continues to hone her incremental mea culpa on Iraq, and her antiwar rivals basically gave her a pass on that today. Referring to her 2002 war authorization vote, she said: “I, too, regret giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused….So, you know, looking back on it, I wouldn't have voted that way again, certainly…And obviously for me that is a great regret…I would never have diverted our attention to Iraq, and I never would have pursued this war. I think that has been a terrible mistake for our country.” It wasn’t exactly the apology long sought by the liberal base, but none of her major competitors said a word in protest.
Barack Obama was also stressing common ground on the issue of U.S. troop withdrawals. After Hillary gave a long answer about the logistical complexities of an orderly military pullout (“This is going to be very dangerous and very difficult, and a lot of people don’t like to hear that”), with Joe Biden seconding the point, Obama went un search of a Democratic consensus: “I think Joe is right on the issue of how long this is going to take. This is not going to be a simple operation. I think Senator Clinton laid out some of the challenges that were out there. I agree with John Edwards that all of us on this stage I think would begin to bring this war to an end. I think we also can all agree that it's going to be messy, that there are no good options.”
It wasn’t all Kumbaya up there. Obama had no choice but to defend himself on the issue of experience, after Stephanopoulos launched the show by asking the other candidates whether Obama was sufficiently seasoned. (Hillary, also in reconciliation mode, had dodged the question by saying, “I think we have a great group of candidates.”) Obama waited 45 minutes before delivering a rhetorically effective rebuttal: “Earlier on, we were talking about the issue of experience. Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war. And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington.”
On the other hand, Obama went easy on Hillary when he was asked whether the frontrunner was a polarizing figure who would endanger down-ticket Democratic candidates in 2008. (Last week, the departing Karl Rove repeatedly assailed Hillary as a polarizer whose high negatives would imperil her election; and the Associated Press reported that many Democrats around the country are worried that she would be a drag on candidates running for lower offices.)
Obama didn’t take the bait, however. Rather than paint Hillary as too baggage-burdened for the party's good, he quickly switched, as he often does, to high road mode: “There’s something bigger at stake here…the big challenges we face,” whereupon he riffed about health care and other big issues, and said, “They’re not just Republican problems. They’re Democratic and American problems…” He did make a passing remark about “the failed politics of Washington,” and about election strategies that are predicated on dividing America into blue states and red states, all of which might have been about Hillary, but nothing that constituted a skewering sound bite.
Hillary’s high negatives – roughly 48 percent of Americans reportedly view her with suspicion or worse – are indeed a potential impediment. But she had an effective response today: “You know, the idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think, is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years.”
Translation: Hillary is saying that she has already suffered the wounds of battle against the GOP, and that she has survived those wounds – whereas, relatively speaking, none of her less-tested rivals have yet suffered so much as a scratch. She is suggesting that she has maxed out on her injuries, that the GOP has already spent all its ammunition on her (indeed, earlier today the Republicans emailed some embarrassing remarks that Hillary made…in 1992) – whereas her rivals are pristine only because they have not been sufficiently targeted.
This is a key question that many grassroots Democrats may well ask themselves on the eve of the primary season: Has Hillary hit her negative ceiling, or can it still go even higher? Should Democrats find a different candidate, or is it inevitable that any Democrat would wind up hitting the same ceiling (just as John Kerry went from war hero to Swift Boat caricature)? Or are Democrats needlessly worrying about what Hillary calls the “Republican atttack machine,” given the public’s general disdain for the GOP these days, as the Iraq war grinds on?
The Democrats today were probably relieved that nobody (for once) asked them about gay marriage. I explained why this issue makes them squirm, in my latest Sunday newspaper column.