How we miss you, John Edwards. Not just the viewers of that dull debate Thursday night in Los Angeles, but even the candidates themselves. Clinton and Obama invoked Edwards immediately, to lend themselves credibility on the issues of health care (Hillary) and undue lobbyist influence in Washington (Obama).
But anyone waiting for the progressive, populist argument on any subject to is still holding their breath.
Overall, Hillary won, mostly because Obama was on his heels almost the whole time. He seemed meek and hesitant--overly deferential and reluctant to throw punches, lest he be accused, as he has been lately by the Clinton camp, of seeming unfriendly. He was fighting on two fronts: against Hillary, who seemed full of confidence and had the crowd with her, and against Wolf Blitzer, who interpreted everything Obama said to distinguish himself, however diplomatically, as a "swipe" at Hillary.
The intricate policy discussion at the beginning on health care was a tangled mess. Both policies are too complex, both leave intact the for-profit, insurance-company-driven system. The rhetorical arguments about "universal" versus not universal health care amount to squat. Mostly, it was an opportunity for Clinton to remind everyone how much more experienced she is on the issue than "Barack" (she addressed him in the diminutive throughout the debate), and how not-quite-universal his plan is. "We as Democrats have to be willing to fight for universal health care," and "bite the bullet," Hillary said. But her promise to provide Congress's Cadillac health care coverage to all of America's uninsured and underinsured is not credible. Members of Congress have the best health care in the land, for which they pay nothing. Regular citizens, under Hillary's plan, will have to pay for HMO coverage. Obama pointed out that some people who felt they couldn't afford the Hillary plan might end up paying fines instead. But it didn't do him much good. He remained on the defensive the rest of the night.
The longer the debate went on the more chances Hillary got to play elder statesman to "Barack's" charming if naive little boy. At one point she gave a reprise of her resume so long he appeared to shrink with every new addition in her list of weighty jobs. "Why does Hillary look happier?" my six-year-old asked part way through. Smiling, laughing, speaking in a more modulated, less harsh voice, and, most of all, projecting relaxed assurance, Hillary showed that she knows how to prepare, absorb criticism, adjust. She is a real pro.
Poor Obama tried to make a point, delicately, about transparency, saying he'd have health care debates broadcast on C-SPAN, and Wolf Blitzer jumped in to ask, "Is that a swipe at Hillary?" Instead of having viewers focus on the secrecy of her own health care task force, Blitzer and Clinton effectively made the issue about whether Obama was being mean. Hardly. He nodded when she answered. He endorsed her idea of electronic medical records. Then got his face slapped when, on immigration, Hillary took the low road.
Obama said that African Americans in the inner city who blame illegal immigrants for taking their jobs are "scapegoating.” Immediately, she stepped in to say, "We have to be honest," illegal immigrants ARE taking African Americans' jobs, even if the immigrants themselves are "exploited" by unscrupulous employers. Obama never defended himself--or the immigrants he initially stuck up for. Nor did he take a page from Edwards and point to the ways in which the free trade agreements and other Wall Street-friendly policies Clinton supports have spurred immigration from Latin America and hurt the poor and middle class here at home. Instead he nodded, deferentially.
When Blitzer pressed Obama on whether he was accusing Hillary of not backing the immigration reform legislation he co-sponsored in the Senate, he sounded awfully defensive. Blitzer asked Hillary if she should have joined him.
"I co-sponsored comprehensive immigration reform in 1994 before Barack came to the Senate," she said, once again implying that she was drafting important legislation back when he was busy making mud pies in the front yard in his underpants.
Why didn't Obama have any zingers, jokes, or ready applause lines? He seemed to be just trying to get through the debate without giving offense. The usually stiff and unappealing Hillary had good prepared lines, like her attack on mean-spirited Republican immigration legislation that "would have criminalized the Good Samaritan and Jesus Christ himself."
Could it be that Obama is simply caught flat-footed by her sheer brazenness? On her flip-flop on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, Hillary boldly declared what a bad idea the whole thing was (behind the scenes she seems to have had New York Governor Eliot Spitzer kill his perfectly sensible plan because, in declaring it perfectly sensible in a previous debate, she hurt herself politically). When Obama said, very politely, that he would "only make the point" that she had given different answers at different times on this, she accused him of doing the same thing, and then, incredibly, her voice seemed to break as she made an appeal for fairness to immigrants. She might as well have started talking about her little dog Checkers. It was not to be believed.
And here is where we could really use John Edwards again. It was Edwards the trial lawyer who originally pointed out that Clinton had given two different answers in two minutes on that whole driver's license issue. A good debater would have called attention to the many other simultaneous, opposite positions Hillary staked out.
Here was the biggest groaner of them all, in response to a question about how Hillary represents change, from a 38-year-old voter who has never voted in an election that didn't have either a Clinton or a Bush on the ticket: "We all start out the same," Hillary said of Presidential candidates. "Nobody has an advantage, no matter who you are or where you came from." WHAT??!!! The Hollywood audience ate it up, applauding mightily for the self-made woman who pulled herself up by her pumps from mere First-Ladyhood to take a run at reoccupying the White House. Wait, it got worse: "I don't want to be advantaged by my husband's Administration," she said nobly. Then, within seconds, she began invoking the prosperity and peace of the first Clinton era. Which is it? Edwards might have asked.
She finished the whole 180-degree pirouette by declaring, "It took a Clinton to clean up after the first Bush and it might just take another Clinton to clean up after the second Bush." The crowd went wild. Huge cheers from all the Hollywood stars sitting in the audience. Talk about a fairy tale.
Even on Iraq, Obama couldn't touch Clinton. When he mentioned, carefully, his early opposition to the war, Blitzer jumped in again with his "Senator Clinton, that's a swipe at you." She turned it into a joke: "Really?" Then she condescendingly mentioned she had gotten "Barack" to sign onto her legislation to force the President to come to Congress before making the occupation permanent.
When Blitzer tried to call Hillary on her claim that she was hoodwinked into voting to authorize force in Iraq, thinking it really meant diplomacy, he was soundly booed for suggesting Hillary had said she was "naive" about Bush. The effrontery!
Obama delicately interjected that he didn't want to "belabor" the point, but that the resolution's title WAS "Authorization to use military force in Iraq." Silly Barack, that was a long time ago. Clinton said we should all be looking at the future now.
To the final question, whether the candidates would consider a combined ticket, the Hollywood liberals went nuts. It sounded like a great idea in LaLa Land. But watching the candidates on stage, I had an ominous feeling that somewhere nearby, John McCain was licking his chops.