In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells an amusing story about his first tour through downstate Illinois, when he had the audacity to order Dijon mustard on his cheeseburger at a TGI Friday's. His political aide hastily informed the waitress that Obama didn't want Dijon at all, and thrust a yellow bottle of ordinary-American heartland-values mustard at him instead. The perplexed waitress informed Obama that she had Dijon if he wanted. He smiled and said thanks. "As the waitress walked away, I leaned over and whispered that I didn't think there were any photographers around," Obama recalled.
Obama's memoir dripped with contempt for modern gotcha politics, for a campaign culture obsessed with substantively irrelevant but supposedly symbolic gaffes like John Kerry ordering Swiss cheese or Al Gore sighing or George H.W. Bush checking his watch or Michael Dukakis looking dorky in a tank. "What's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial," he wrote.
Last night at the National Constitution Center, at a Democratic debate that was hyped by ABC as a discussion of serious constitutional issues, America got to see exactly what Obama was complaining about. At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama's comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly "friendly," and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel — with a single detour into Senator Hillary Clinton's yarn about sniper fire in Tuzla. Apparently, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos ran out of time before they could ask Obama why he's such a lousy bowler.
It must be said that Obama did not seem very comfortable on the defensive, and he had trouble answering questions like whether he's more patriotic than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Since "performance" is all that the talking heads ever notice, they'll probably declare Clinton the winner of the debate. She constantly salted Obama's wounds, all the while insisting that she was merely concerned that Republicans would salt them in the fall, and that his various controversies simply "raised questions" about his electability; at one point she claimed that his exhaustively chewed-over relationship with Wright "deserves further exploration," which is kind of like saying that Whitewater deserves further investigation. "These are legitimate questions, as everything is when you run for office," Clinton said.
But maybe Obama is right that Americans are tired of "the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with," as he put in his lapel-pin answer. And even if they aren't, it's nice to hear someone critique that image-obsessed, context-deprived soundbite culture-a culture, incidentally, in which Stephanopoulos flourished when he was spinning for the Clintons.
Last night's debate did not reveal any big policy differences between Obama and Clinton. But it did reveal their different approaches to politics, and the different arguments for their candidacies that stem from those approaches.
Clinton's main argument was that she can beat John McCain because she's already been vetted in this culture, "having gone through 16 years on the receiving end of what the Republican Party dishes out." She's basically saying that her dirty laundry-the questionable money she made in cattle futures, the Travelgate firings, her kiss of Suha Arafat, her husband's pardons, the unpleasantries of 1998-is no longer newsworthy, and the mere fact of her political survival shows that it's irrelevant. "I have a lot of baggage, and everyone has rummaged through it for many years," she said. Obama hasn't rehashed that baggage, although he did slyly remind Americans about her 1992 crack about staying home and baking cookies, ostensibly to make that point that she had been treated unfairly, probably with an ulterior motive. But in any case, it's not like she's survived all that baggage unscathed; she's got sky-high unfavorable ratings. And it's not like Republicans would agree not to raise all that baggage in the fall if she somehow became the nominee. Hey, she even said everything's legitimate when you run for office.
Obama's argument is that he can rise above the divisive politics of the nineties—not just the intense partisanship, but the constant posturing and point-scoring in the service of winning a news cycle. He portrays Clinton as a victim of those war-room politics—but also a veteran practitioner. "Senator Clinton learned the wrong lesson, because she's adopted the same tactics," he said last night. He's talking about the culture of perpetual spin, where everything is fair game in the service, including your opponent's kindergarten dreams of grandeur. It's a game of guilt by association, as Obama said last night, "the kind of game in which anybody I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship, their ideas can be attributed to me."
This makes for extremely stupid politics, where substance is only relevant to catch politicians in flip-flops or mistakes. Last night, for example, Gibson tried to nail Obama over capital gains taxes, revealing only his own misunderstanding of the difference between correlation and causation. For all the back-and-forth over a crazy Weatherman he once served with on a board, Obama never got to tell voters that he opposed the war in Iraq from the start. For all the back-and-forth over her Tuzla goof—Obama stayed out of it, although he acknowledged that his campaign aides addressed it when asked—Clinton never got to mention anything she's done in the Senate. And the only real constitutional issue that got discussed was the right to bear arms.
It's funny, because the intended point of Obama's ill-advised comments about small-town voters was that they "cling" to wedge issues involving God and guns because they've lost faith in our political culture's ability to solve problems. It's an arguable point. But last night suggests that there's little denying that our political culture has lost its ability to illuminate any issue more complicated than the appropriate condiments for a red blooded American to eat.
From DailyKOS by Hunter:
After the first forty minutes of last night's Democratic debate, it was clear we were watching something historic. Not historic in a good way, mind you, but historic in the sense of being something so deeply embarrassing to the nation that it will be pointed to, in future books and documentary works, as a prime example of the collapse of the American media into utter and complete substanceless, into self-celebrated vapidity, and into a now-complete inability or unwillingness to cover the most important affairs of the nation to any but the most shallow of depths.
Congratulations are clearly in order. ABC had two hours of access to two of the three remaining candidates vying to lead the most powerful nation in the world, and spent the decided majority of that time mining what the press considers the true issues facing the republic. Bittergate; Rev. Wright; Bosnia; American flag lapel pins. That's what's important to the future of the country.
What a contrast. Only a few weeks ago, we were presented with what was considered by many to be a historic speech by a presidential candidate on race in America -- historic for its substance, tone, delivery, and stark candor. Last night, we had an opposing, equally historic example -- and I sincerely mean that, I consider it to be every bit as significant as that word implies -- of the collapse of the political press into self-willed incompetence. You might as well pull any half-intelligent person off the street, and they would unquestionably have more difficult and significant questions for the two candidates. It was not merely a momentarily bad performance, by ABC, it was a debate explicitly designed to be what it was, which is far more telling.
It is certainly true that a case could be made that the moderators explicitly set out to frame even the supposedly "substantive" questions according to GOP designs. The implicit presumption of success in Iraq when, nearly an hour into the debate, the moderators finally deigned to mention the defining current event of this campaign. Gibson, as moderator, lied outright about the supposed effects of capital gains tax cuts, and dogged the candidates over it to a greater extent than any other economic issue: does he really believe that of all the economic challenges facing this nation, the most pressing of them is supplication towards a decade-long Republican bugaboo? Gun control? Affirmative action? These are the issues that are most compellingly on the minds of Democratic primary voters, in 2008? Or were the questions taken from a 1992 time capsule, insightful probes gathering dust for a decade and a half until they could find network moderators desperate enough to dig them up again?
But even slanted questions could be forgiven, of the press; what was more inexplicable was the intentional wallowing in substanceless, meaningless "gaffe" politics. It says something truly impressive about the press that a few statements by a presidential candidate's preacher bear far more weight to the future of our nation than the challenges of terrorism or war. It is truly a celebration of our own national collapse into idiocracy that we can furrow our brows and question the patriotism of a candidate, deeply probe their patriotism based on whether or not they regularly don a made-in-China American flag pin, but a substantive discussion of energy policy, or healthcare, or the deficit, or the housing crisis, or global climate change, or the government approval of torture, or trade issues, or the plight of one-industry small American towns, or the fight over domestic espionage and FISA, or the makeup of the Supreme Court -- those were of no significance, in comparison.
If a media organization set out to intentionally demonstrate themselves to be self absorbed and ignorant, they could not have accomplished it better. It was not just a tabloid debate, but the tittering of political kindergardeners making and lobbing mud pies. It was politics as game show. The moderators demonstrated that to them and their supposed "news" organization, the presidency of the United States of America is about the trivialities of_politics_, which were obsessed over ravenously, not about the challenges of American governance, which were fully ignored.
Certainly, as mere citizens we could ask little of the network that unapologetically brought us The Path to 9/11, a fabricated conservative pseudo-documentary laying the blame for terrorism at the feet of everyone loathed by the far right. But it is not simply ABC that bears the blame: surely, one could expect similar drivel from any of the other networks or cable channels who have so successfully and self-importantly dimmed the national discourse, these past ten years. For his part, the chairman of the written intellectual wisp, the New York Times' David Brooks, marveled at the "excellent" questions:We may not like it, but issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag lapels and the Tuzla airport will be important in the fall. Remember how George H.W. Bush toured flag factories to expose Michael Dukakis. It’s legitimate to see how the candidates will respond to these sorts of symbolic issues.
Indeed, how dare his peon readers whine about these things: this is how the political game is expected to be played by the grand masters of our discourse. Symbolic tours of flag factories! Checkmate! That is the elite idea of "issues" in our national debate. Piss on the war, and screw the economy -- somebody find a goddamn flag factory to tour! That is how our most elite media figures like to see political opponents "exposed" as... well, what exactly? What does touring a flag factory prove, other than the media in this country is so astonishingly gullible, tin-headed and shallow that you can actually tour a damn flag factory and get praised for it by our idiot press as being a bold, disarming move against your opponent?
Truly, we have become a nation led by the most lazy and ignorant. It seems impossible to mock or satirize just how shallowly the media considers the actual world ramifications of each election, how glancingly they explore the actual truth behind political assertion or rhetoric, or how gleefully they molest our discourse while praising themselves for those selfsame acts. And that, in turn, is precisely how we elected our current Idiot Boy King, a man who has the eloquent demeanor of a month-old Christmas tree and the nuance of a Saturday morning cartoon.
It seems impossible, but we may yet have an election season in which we can be in a slogging, five-year-long war, and mention the fact only in glancing asides. We may yet have a series of Republican-Democratic debates in which the most pressing issues of the economy are entirely ignored, so that we can more adequately explore the "patriotism" of the candidates as expressed by their clothing. We may have yet another campaign season carefully orchestrated to leave all but the most glancing and hollow of themes untouched, while our press achieves multiple orgasms at every botched line, every refused cup of coffee, every peddled character assassination or character assassination-by-proxy peddled by the sleaziest of paid dregs. A campaign, in other words, perfectly suited to the bereft, rudderless, and substanceless self-pronounced guardians of our democracy.
Perhaps, if nothing else, it is time to take back the debate process and insist once again on moderators chosen for competence, expertise and neutrality, rather than network or cable network fame. The elites of our press have managed to botch the task time and time again; perhaps it should be left to someone with an actual interest in doing the job.
ABC Hosts Heckled After Debate: "The Crowd Is Turning On Me"