Despite Wolf Blitzer's rather scolding admonition that the CNN debate would focus on substantive issues--an obvious slap at MSNBC's race-and-gender showdown in Nevada--sparks were flying at the MLK Day debate in South Carolina.
Let's face it, CNN was never really hoping for a tutorial on policy from the candidates. The "most trusted name in news," which features some of the silliest fancy graphics on television in its primary coverage, somehow persuaded the candidates to switch from standing at podiums to sitting in chairs halfway through the debate. (Why? So we could evaluate the relative merits of their crossed legs?) In the sitting-down segment CNN pulled out the race and gender questions--like asking Obama whether Bill Clinton was really the nation's "first black President." Obama handled the question perfectly--first with winning sincerity, praising Southern whites who have been transformed by living through the civil rights movement, and then, with late-night comic timing, joking about vetting Clinton's dancing skills to determine "if he's really a brother." He yanked John Edwards's chain a few times on the white-man issue in a similarly amusing fashion. Edwards and Obama both told some moving anecdotes and made some personal, emotional appeals that eclipsed Hillary with her boring, rambling wonk style. But who knows, maybe Hillary's toughness and aggressiveness will be counted as a "win."
The hot exchanges among the candidates, besides being good for ratings and entertaining political theater, were also revealing.
The post-game show focused on Clinton and Obama's squabble over who is distorting whose record more on the campaign trail. (Edwards took the opportunity to pull a Russ Feingold and rise above the mud-slinging, reminding his opponents that the race is not about them, personally.) But the fights--which Edwards actually kicked off, with his criticism of his opponents on trade--showed up all the candidates' inconsistencies.
It began when Edwards accused his opponents of hurting the economy of South Carolina by voting for the Peru trade deal. Obama responded by attacking Edwards's Achilles heel--his vote for Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China. Obama acknowledged Edwards's point that agreements like NAFTA are bad for labor and the environment, and defended his vote on Peru because it has some (weak) labor and environmental side agreements. But, most damagingly for Edwards, Obama pointed out that the China deal is far more egregious than the one with Peru. After all, Obama noted, Peru has an economy "the size of New Hampshire," nothing like the titanic trade impact of China. Edwards never responded to that point.
Then came Obama's attack on the Clinton slime machine. He seemed particularly mad about Bill Clinton's unfair claims that his legitimate early opposition to the Iraq War is a "fairy tale." Hillary did herself no favors by talking about "our" research and what details "we" have dug up by combing through Obama's record. "I'll be more than happy to give you evidence because we have searched for it," she said. She seemed to reinforce Obama's point that she and Bill and their team of crack researchers are negative campaigners who dig up dirt to smear their opponents. Still, some of Hillary's points were valid: Obama did praise Ronald Reagan, and not just in the qualified terms he claimed in the debate. He did have a business relationship with Tony Rezko, the indicted businessman Clinton called a "slum landlord." Not only did Obama do legal work for Rezko in association with a "church group" that had a partnership with him, as he explained in the debate, he also bought land from Rezko, and the now-indicted Rezko has been a longtime contributor. The relationship has been a problem for Obama, because Rezko is such a shady character and because it is more than a passing association, as a detailed investigation by The Chicago Sun Times reveals.
For her part, Hillary does, indeed count her years on the corporate board of Wal-Mart among the "thirty-five years of experience" she talks about, as Obama tartly pointed out. He defended his understanding of the damage Reagan did, particularly to union households, in the 1980s, saying, "While I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart." Ouch.
Hillary invoked her early work with the Children's Defense Fund and its founder Marian Wright Edelman to demonstrate her lifelong, passionate commitment to "ending child poverty.”. But the Clintons infuriated Edelman when they were in office, signing the law that did away with Aid to Families with Dependent Children--a move that took the country in precisely the opposite direction. At the time, Edelman said it "made a mockery" of President Clinton's pledge to help poor children. And, though Hillary made a point about the $7,500 increase in income in "typical" African-American households' in the 1990s (note the careful use of the word "typical" as opposed to "median" or "average"), Clinton's rising-tide-lifts-all-boats invocation of "shared prosperity" sounds Reaganesque itself. No serious plans to address inequality, which grew during the halcyon 1990s, for Clinton.
On health care, the debate left hanging the question: Do the Edwards and Clinton plans make health care affordable for everyone, as those two candidates claim? Or, as Obama says, will people end up uncovered and paying fines because they can't afford to buy the coverage the plans mandate?
Squirmiest moment: When Edwards said, "I can go anywhere in America and compete against John McCain and win." Translation: The Democrats need a white man to win the South.
This was followed by another squirmy non sequitur, from Obama: "I am a proud Christian."
Hillary put in her two cents, saying she is the candidate to beat McCain because, if McCain is the nominee, "we'll have a general election about national security."
Obama had a good response there: "The way we are going to take on somebody like a John McCain on national security is not that we're sort of -- we've been sort of like John McCain, but not completely, you know, we voted for the war, but we had reservations. I think it's going to be somebody who can serve a strong contrast and say, 'We've got to overcome the politics of fear in this country.'"
On the final question, why would MLK endorse each candidate, Edwards invoked the Poor People's Campaign and the Voting Rights Act, making a credible case for having the most civil-rights-focused candidacy. Obama had the best and truest response: "I don't think Dr. King would endorse any of us." Instead, he would call on Americans to hold their politicians accountable. "I believe change does not happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. Dr. King understood that."
Lucky for Hillary, she went last. The least likely Democrat to claim King's endorsement got to follow Obama's "bottom-up" line and give general praise to the late civil rights leader: "There was a meeting of morality and politics. And the political leaders finally responded."
If "experience" and "change" wear thin, Hillary could just start campaigning straight up as LBJ.