MSNBC may not have been playing fair in last night's debate--declaring "it's down to three" after going to court to shove Dennis Kucinich off the stage and asking a lot of questions designed to provoke a race-and-gender cat fight. But the candidates themselves had a substantive conversation.
John Edwards did the best job of drawing distinctions among the candidates, particularly on the Iraq War, where he pressed his opponents on what they mean by ending the war. He promises, within a year of taking office, to get all combat troops out of Iraq and leave no military bases, thus ending the occupation.
Obama spoke about ending the war by 2009, but said we need to have troops in Iraq ready to defend our “strategic interest” and respond to an Al Qaeda strike.
Edwards pointed out that Al Qaeda is responsible for about 10 percent of the violence, and the occupation itself contributes to the problem.
Likewise, on economic issues, where he has always been the most assertive, he spoke out loud and clear.
"We have economic growth in America—we still do—but almost the entirety of that economic growth is with the very wealthiest Americans and the biggest multinational corporations," Edwards said. "This is the great challenge that we’re facing in this election.”
He spoke specifically about his support for organized labor and for a minimum wage of at least $9.50 an hour, as well as getting rid of the big banks as intermediaries for student loans.
But it was cringe-inducing to hear another Edwards apology for a wrong vote--this one in response to Tim Russert's question on the bankruptcy bill.
Hillary, too, said she's sorry for voting for the 2001 bill. “I was happy that it never became law,” she added oddly. And then she pointed out that she didn’t vote for the 2005 bill.
Obama sounded best here, saying: "I opposed them both. . . . They were pushed by the credit card companies. They were pushed by the mortgage companies. And they put the interests of those banks and financial institutions ahead of the interests of the people.”
He added that “unless we are able to rid the influence of special interest lobbies in Washington, we’re going to continue to see bad legislation like that.”
Obama also articulated a great defense of progressive taxation in response to a hostile question. Warren Buffett, he pointed out, pays a lower tax rate than his secretary. “There is something fundamentally unjust about that.”
The best part of the debate, though it was cut short, was the opportunity for candidates to pose questions to one another. Edwards, the trial lawyer, took full advantage of this opportunity, pointing out that Hillary raised more money from health care and drug companies than any other candidate, until she was recently eclipsed by Obama. His question to both candidates was, "Do you think these people expect something for this money?”
Obama was the only one who had to answer the question. He pointed out that, like Edwards, he doesn't take PAC money. And by way of exculpation, Obama said: “A mid-level executive at a drug company or an insurance company who is inspired by my message of change" might give him money, and that individual contribution gets recorded as a drug-company or insurance-company contribution.
Hmmmm . . . so it just happens that Obama and Hillary are personally inspiring to middle managers of some of the biggest industries in the country.
Looking at the numbers, you'd have to conclude that Hillary's message of “change you can count on,” or perhaps her recent emotional moment, was particularly moving to realtors, securities and investment bankers, and hedge fund and private equity managers. While Barack Obama's inspirational leadership appeals to the hopefulness of TV, movie, and music executives.
On a handful of other issues, we got to see some real argument among the candidates--that's the up side of a smaller field.
On nuclear power, for example, Edwards pointed out that his opponents have each given qualified support (Obama) or "agnostic" (Hillary) responses when pressed on the issue. "I'm not for it or agnostic," Edwards said. "I am against building more nuclear power plants." To which Hillary responded "Well, John, you did vote for Yucca Mountain [the nuclear waste dump] twice." (This inspired yet another mea culpa. That was before the science showed how bad the facility was, Edwards responded.)
On the dreadful Cheney energy bill, Russert pressed Obama on his vote for it. Obama said that it was the single largest investment in clean energy we've made as a nation, which actually isn't saying that much. Hillary took him to task, saying that the bill was written by and for special interests. Score one for Hillary.
To a question from the leaders of the group 100 Black Men, on the high drop-out rate for African American teens, both Obama and Hillary waved at the importance of early childhood education, and both made noises about absent fathers.
Edwards is the least sexy on issues like this--he doesn't stir up any controversy by addressing the cultural fault lines around race and family-values issues. But he also has a comprehensive pre-K plan that would do far more than any lecture from Bill Cosby to help poor kids.
So there you have your candidates. None innocent of corporate influence (except for the one who couldn't get on TV because of it).
Among them there are some decent ideas. Ideas only go so far, though.
I was reminded recently of the excitement in the Children's Defense Fund when Bill Clinton was elected and it seemed, for a moment, like something good could happen for poor families and young children. Then we got welfare reform and some incremental policy initiatives.
Unpaid Family and Medical Leave beats No Child Left Behind. But it's cautionary to look back and see the gap between the promise of inspiring candidates and what they delivered.
Obama was right, when he talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. at the beginning of the debate. He wisely avoided Russert's invitation to blame voters' racism for his loss in New Hampshire. Instead he switched to the unifying idea of movement politics: "What happens in Washington is important . . . But if we don't have an activated people . . . all moving in the same direction, demanding that change happens, then Washington special interest lobbyists end up dominating the agenda."
That much is clear from all the candidates' records. Whether it can change depends more on us than on them.