Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Democratic South Carolina debate thoughts

Wow, this was the hardest hitting Democratic debate so far.

First, why do all the (mostly white) political commentators keep saying, wow, race is being talked about? or "Wow, race is an issue" like dumbasses?!?! It's a lil ridiculous folks. Obama self-identifies as black, but also as global. Of course we;re going to talk about race. (And a big thank you goes to Howard Dean.)

What was interesting is that the format of the debate was formal debate with moderator in the first half, candidates in chairs without rules for the second half. Weirdly, the first half had more hard-hitting back and forth and some moments where audience members (and I) went "ouch!" at candidate's statements. But in the chairs, the three candidates (Edwards, Hillary and Obama) were more relaxed and actually exchanged boxing gloves for white ones of civility.

Hillary was really throwing a lot of stuff at Obama, and I was semi-surprised that Edwards also piled onto Obama with her, landing harder punches esp on the healthcare stuff.

Edwards, again, hits Obama with greater dexterity than Hillary manages, this time on single-payer:

The problem with this argument is you can make exactly the same argument about Social Security," he says of Obama's plan not to insist that everyone buy health care.

Hillary piles on, to make her case: "This is kind of like the present vote[s]."

Obama responds on a point that's very much subject to how much the plan winds up costing: whether or not a mandate will be "affordable enough."

I have to say again that I was kinda surprised by Edwards landing these blows, and that it seemed the tactical and tacit alliance between Edwards and Obama that seemed to be in place earlier has switched. I don't know why it's switched now, in a state like South Carolina, in front of a predominantly black voting audience, but it has. And it doesn't look good. I understand that Edwards' campaign might be pissed for personal reasons about the UNITE HERE endorsement, esp since the union's former chief of staff is an Edwards adviser, but I'm pretty sure it goes beyond that. Edwards has an anti-Hillary line, and anti-establishment line, and he started hitting Obama after Obama's endorsement and subsequent rollout of ads on his behalf because well, Obama was definitely hitting Edwards and Hillary on independent expenditures by unions.

Nobody saw that one coming: Edwards — for tactical reasons, or out of pure courtroom instinct — pressed Clinton's assault on Obama's "present" votes, and the question — unanswered at that point — of why Obama hadn't just voted "no."

"You criticize Hillary, you criticize me for our votes," he said, trying to deny Obama the moral high ground he'd sought.

Edwards asked "why you voted present, rather than yes or no, when you had a chance to vote up or down," he said.

Obama responded that the present votes were meant to signal "technical problems with a piece of legislation" he might otherwise have voted for, or, in other cases, strategy -- a response that's borne out in many of the cases they're talking about but doesn't help with the broader case that there's a gap between the clarity of his rhetoric and the pragmatism of his politics. (Though whether that's a problem is a different question.)

Edwards was really convincing and eloquent on this one, and I know it landed. Ouch.

A particularly BAD moment for Obama was when he said that he has "never been for universal health care." Bad for Democratic activists to here, and bad for him to say. I understand he's still trying to appeal to the general election voter, but when even a high profile, nonpartisan and well-trusted (for some reason) group like the AARP is saying that we need universal healthcare, I think it is TOTALLY OKAY to say we need universal health care. There's a lot of room there for some primary attack ads, and it's a hard thing to back down from in a general election with the GOP. As someone who is really passionate about health care, it was a pretty disheartening moment.

Hillary tried to pull a "Obama voted against the war but then voted for funding it", which would have paralleled John Kerry's own admission "I voted for it before I voted against it" except I don't think that punch landed so much. I thought Obama did a good job of defusing the question of whether he thought "Bill Clinton was indeed the first black president" by saying that:

First, cleverly, he linked Clinton to Edwards, casting him not as a unique figure, but as one of many honorable white sons of the South who eschewed racism.


"I would have to investigate more Bill’s dancing ability and some of this other stuff before I accurately judged whether he was, in fact, a brother," Obama said, to laughter.

"I'm sure that can be arranged," Hillary responded.

This was smart, funny, and honors the white allies and detracts from white (liberal) guilt. This was in the second half when they were all seated, and Obama definitely tried to de-escalate the tension levels.

If I had to pick one person who won, I would actually say Edwards, because he got to point at the bickering children on stage and ask if their bickering was going to get children the health care that they deserve. So he got to rise above. But it was clear that the audience was with Obama and I wonder if the image of a black candidate being attacked from both sides by white candidates, one female, one male, won't be burnt into the eye sockets of many South Carolina voters.

One might ask what the difference between this and Clinton complaining last summer that the boys were ganging up on her because she was female (which I wasn't particularly sympathetic to - she was the national FRONT RUNNER by money, staff, and endorsements then, and that is what happens - it's simply smart politics) is that Obama isn't the clear national frontrunner. He is only the front-runner in SC. In fact, I would bet that although Obama has built a 50 state strategy, training and recruiting people who have never been involved in politics before, along Dean's ideals (having the resources to do so, unlike Edwards), Hillary still has better national name recognition, for better or worse. Time will tell whether his recruits are more or less adept than Dean's. And she has the Democratic establishment behind her especially in delegate-rich NY and CA. So it's not quite a toss up, but more analysis later.

NEXT UP: McCain Gets Swiftboated

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