Last Wednesday’s two-hour televised smackdown in Philadelphia between the two remaining Democratic candidates for President, which might have been billed as the Élite Treat v. the Boilermaker Belle, turned into something worse—something akin to a federal crime. Call it the case of the Walt Disney Company v. People of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (and of the United States, for that matter). Seldom has a large corporation so heedlessly inflicted so much civic damage in such a short space of time.
None of the other debates had been models of philosophic rigor. But, right from the start, there were clues that the sponsor of this one—ABC News, a part of the ABC network, which is owned by Disney—might establish new benchmarks of degradation. After brief opening statements from the candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, ABC immediately cut to an advertisement for a cell-phone company. A commercial? Already? Were candidates for President of the United States being used as teasers?
After the break, one of ABC’s moderators, Charles Gibson, asked Clinton and Obama to “pledge now” that whichever of them wins the Presidential nomination take the runner-up as his or her running mate. ABC put on the screen a solemn quote from the Constitution (they were at the National Constitution Center, get it?)—the bit where it says, “In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President.”
It happens that this part of the Constitution was scrapped after the election of 1800. It should no more be cited as evidence of the framers’ wisdom than should the equally defunct passage calling for “three fifths of all other Persons”—i.e., slaves—to count toward congressional apportionment. It also happens that Gibson’s question was not only premised on nonsense but also profoundly unhelpful, because the only answers it could elicit would be both predictable and substance-free. And so they were.
If Gibson and his partner, George Stephanopoulos, had halted their descent at the level of the fatuous, that would have been bad enough. But there was worse to come. In the seven weeks since the previous Clinton-Obama debate, the death toll of American troops in Iraq had reached four thousand; the President had admitted that his “national-security team,” including the Vice-President, had met regularly in the White House to approve the torture of prisoners; house repossessions topped fifty thousand per month and unemployment topped five per cent; and the poll-measured proportion of Americans who believe that “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track” hit eighty-one per cent, a record. Yet for most of the next hour Gibson and Stephanopoulos limited their questioning to the following topics: Obama’s April 6th remark about “bitter” small-towners; whether each candidate thinks the other can win; the Obama family’s ex-pastor, Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.; Clinton’s tale of sniper fire in Bosnia; Obama’s failure to wear a flag lapel pin; and Obama’s acquaintance with a college professor in his Chicago neighborhood who, while Obama was in grade school, was a member of the Weather Underground. And the problem wasn’t just the questions’ subject matter, or the fact that all but the last had been thoroughly raked over already; it was their moral and intellectual vacuity. “Number one, do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” That was Stephanopoulos. (His follow-up: “But you do believe he’s as patriotic as you are?”) The idea was to force Obama either to denigrate Wright’s patriotism or to equate it with his own. Obama’s exasperation showed, though he slipped the trap by pointing to Wright’s service in the Marines. One question—“I want to know if you believe in the American flag”—was apparently beneath the dignity of even Gibson and Stephanopoulos, so ABC hunted up a purportedly typical voter to ask it on videotape.
Still, it wasn’t ABC’s fault that Obama’s demeanor was as listless as the assembled journalists and spinners (for both sides) judged it to be. His mind was engaged—that much is clear if one reads the transcript, in which the match is noticeably more even than it was on the screen—but his spirit was absent. His opponent, by contrast, was sharp and alert, missing no opportunity to press the lines of attack that the moderators helpfully opened up.
Obama was coming off a harrowing week that was of his own making. No one had forced him to say, of people whose “jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years,” that “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” That he said this at an off-the-record fund-raiser in San Francisco amplified the gaffe. But the context (there was one) is worth noting. Obama was arguing that his trouble with part of the “white working class” is not fundamentally racial:
Here’s how it is: in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by—it’s true that when it’s delivered by a forty-six-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.
From 1972 onward, Republicans have successfully deployed the trope of “élitism” against every Democratic opponent except the two winners, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But this year it has been deployed Democrat-on-Democrat, with Hillary Clinton accusing Obama not just of élitism but also of being condescending and demeaning. Obama was not saying that people acquire religious belief on account of worldly troubles. He was saying that when such troubles appear insurmountable the already religious seek comfort and help from a higher power. Hillary Clinton must know this. Surely she remembers that when her husband’s sex scandals threatened the survival of his Presidency and their marriage, the Clintons summoned the clergy (including, by the way, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright).
Hillary Clinton explained her culture-war assault on Obama by saying that the “issue” in question is bound to be one “that certainly the Republicans will be raising” (though that hardly justifies inviting them to do so with her imprimatur). Clinton portrays herself as a seasoned survivor of the worst that the Republican attack machine can dish out. She has been relatively unrestrained in her battle with Obama, but he has had one hand tied behind him in his battle with her. He cannot mention many of her biggest general-election vulnerabilities, most of which involve her husband’s Administration, the awkward role that he might play in her own, and the potential conflicts of interest posed by the funding of his charitable and commercial activities. Bill Clinton remains popular among Democrats, if not as popular as he used to be. Anyway, all-out attack would undermine the unifying theme of Obama’s campaign.
Obama’s argument is that he represents a new kind of politics; Clinton’s is that she can practice the old kind more expertly. John McCain will have plenty of allies and outriders eager to wield the blades sharpened in the campaigns of George W. Bush and Karl Rove. But McCain—whose sense of honor, however selective, is real—shows few signs of wishing to take up those weapons himself. Barring a much, much bigger than expected Clinton victory in this week’s Pennsylvania primary, Obama will face McCain in the fall. At least at the candidate-to-candidate level, hope and experience will square off at last. The battle might even be about ideas.