Last Night’s Democratic Debate
During the summer doldrums, I criticized the presidential debates as superficial and meaningless. Last night proved me wrong.
Yesterday’s Democratic debate was the best in either party so far. It had moments of substantive clarity, and it showed clear differences among the leading candidates. It may have busted the Democratic race wide open. MSNBC’s post-debate reportage was disgustingly puerile, but the debate itself was well run.
There were three headlines. First, Joe Biden proved knowledgeable and sensible on foreign policy. He made a simple and powerful point. Unlike Iran, which has yet to demonstrate the ability to produce any fissile material, Pakistan has multiple—perhaps many—operational nuclear weapons. Right now, we believe, those weapons are mounted on missiles capable of reaching both Israel and India. It therefore makes little sense to attack Iran and risk an Islamist uprising in Pakistan, which would put a powerful and existing arsenal of nuclear missiles in extremists’ hands.
Biden won the contest to demonstrate the bankruptcy of George W. Bush’s saber-rattling Iran policy hands down. He showed how actually knowing something about the outside world, plus the ability to put that knowledge in perspective, is vital in handling foreign and military affairs.
Uncharacteristically, Biden did all this without exceeding his time limits. He may not win the nomination, but if a Democrat wins he is likely to become Vice President or Secretary of State. He’ll be a good one.
The second headline was that Hillary Clinton stumbled badly. Throughout the debate, her rivals chided her for bad decisions, unclear positions, and political malleability—on Iraq, on Iran, and on social security. At first, she acquitted herself as usual. She doggedly maintained her divine right as leading candidate to waffle and evade any question, no matter how important to the audience or to our collective future.
Most of her waffles, however, were previous and offscreen. Then, with only minutes to go, she did her little dance before our very eyes. She waffled and evaded on camera, in real time.
The issue was hardly world-shaking. Tim Russert asked for her reaction to New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to get drivers’ licenses. The question had some nuance, for Spitzer had proposed three levels of licenses. He would reserve one level for general identification (including airport security) and a second for most drivers. A third, low-level license (apparently with few questions asked) would encourage undocumented drivers to be identified and qualified to drive, through testing on laws and the roads.
Hillary got that nuance. She explained it well. She is nothing if not a good debater. But she visibly tried to have it both ways. She said twice that Spitzer’s proposal “makes sense.” But when pressed by Russert to say she supports it, she waffled. She wouldn’t say yes or no. She just complained of being driven into a “gotcha!”
That exchange was Hillary in an nutshell. She wants to be president, but she doesn’t want to make decisions. She can’t decide what to do without her advisers, her polls and her focus groups. Not even on a minor issue in a presidential debate. Can you imagine that sort of person leading the Cabinet in a crisis?
There are no “gotchas” in the Oval Office. There are only tough decisions to be made, in real time, under great stress. No wonder the Republicans are dying to run against her! She’s the only chance they have of shedding the millstone of George W. Bush.
Hillary’s waffling and evasions are not, as some believe, matters of honesty or credibility. They are matters of leadership and decisiveness. Hillary’s mental processes were transparent for all to see. You could practically hear her thinking, “if I say yes, I support it, I’ll be slimed in the general election as soft on illegal immigration.” So she waffled, even though her previous remarks made it clear that she thought Spitzer’s proposal a good one.
Of course Hillary was right about the politics. No sooner had the debate ended than Chris Matthews started sliming.
But it takes two to slime—a slimer, and a slimee. Barack Obama had a much simpler and more courageous response: he said he supported Spitzer’s proposal because it would encourage illegals to come forward and make New York’s roads safer.
Obama stuck with substance and stated his position clearly, with good reasons. He showed, in a small way, what a president should be. He won’t allow himself to be a slimee because he won’t waffle, and he won’t back down. Demagogues don’t intimidate him.
Call Obama naïve, but wouldn’t it be great to have a president like that again? Those of us over fifty can remember the type. We want one back.
The final headline of the debate was John Edwards. He came out swinging against Hillary and never stopped. It was he who first called attention to Hillary’s waffle over the Sptizer proposal, opening the door for Barack’s much more gentle rebuke.
Perhaps unwittingly, Edwards served as stalking horse for Obama. Two things hold Obama back from attacking Hillary. First, he has promised a different kind of campaign; he can’t allow himself to slide into negativity. Second, as a consummate gentleman, he can’t be seen as roughing up a lady—especially not the first serious female candidate for president.
Many women appear inclined to vote for Hillary just to smash the last glass ceiling. Obama can’t risk alienating them with rude behavior. He knows this because he’s not only the smartest candidate running. He’s also the most empathic.
But someone has to show that a candidate who makes every decision on politics, not substance—and who fears demagoguery more than death—might not make the best possible president. Edwards did that, and Obama was the clear winner.
I like to think that Edwards, who was passionate about saving our democracy, knew exactly what he was doing. He was willing to sacrifice his own candidacy for the greater good.
Not surprisingly, the MSNBC cell-phone poll after the debate showed Obama leading 29% to Clinton’s 21%. It’s a highly unscientific method of polling, but it’s suggestive of what intelligent, informed people think. If Obama can translate that success to a wider audience, we may see a shift in the polls soon.
One final aspect of last night’s debate deserves comment: Chris Matthews and his nitwit journalism. For Matthews, the two headlines of the evening were Dennis Kucinich’s admission that he had seen a UFO and Hillary Clinton’s support for giving illegal immigrants drivers’ licenses. In that order.
Matthews wasn’t interested in what Hillary’s waffling said about her capacity to serve as commander in chief. All he wanted to do was stir up a premature fight with Republican demagogues. Apparently he believes that whether illegal immigrants get drivers’ licenses in New York is more important than all those Pakistani nukes, mounted on operational missiles, that Joe Biden spoke about.
It is time that network news executives took their fair share of responsibility for our nation’s precipitous decline. MSNBC purports to have a serious news organization. Yet Chris Matthews is to journalism as Benedict Arnold is to patriotism. If MSNBC’s executives want to do their part to save our democracy, they should fire Matthews, the sooner the better. He should work for the National Enquirer, where he belongs.