Thursday night, in Vegas, the Democratic hopefuls meet again for the next big debate showdown of this intensifying primary season. But before we get there, it is worth pausing a moment to consider the memorable events of the previous big debate showdown in Philly - and why the GOP was so tickled with the result.
True, the Philly debate was interesting for a change. But at what cost? Consider the two most memorable takeaways (not counting UFO sightings):
1. Our likely nominee looked bad on the critical issue of integrity. Everyone knew Obama was coming after Hillary; he announced it ahead of time, and Brian Williams started with a question about it. Obama likes to say he has a different approach to politics than Hillary - more inclusive, less combative - that appeals to voters turned off by politics as usual. That may be, but by the time Edwards and Tim Russert and then Obama again got into it, they were no longer discussing Hillary's policy positions or political philosophy: they were openly saying she lied to the American people. They pounced when she stumbled in discussing drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants, and they didn't stop there. They used that as a jumping-off point for a more sweeping accusation: that being misleading is business as usual for her. Hillary didn't back down, but she didn't escape unscathed either.
Ronald Reagan was fond of invoking what he called his 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." We don't aspire to operate as a cabal like the GOP has; we need to criticize each other to figure out how to move the country forward. But attacks on personal integrity are especially poisonous. By the end, Obama was even saying he couldn't tell whether Hillary was "for it or against it" (referring to the drivers license policy), echoing the devastating attacks on John Kerry's "for it before I was against it" comment about his war funding vote.
We will all rally around our nominee when the primaries are over. But if the papers are now saying that even democrats think Hillary's personal integrity is questionable, we will not be allowed to forget that if she is our nominee. What's more, she might yet give as good as she gets. Hillary took a real hit in her polls numbers after this last debate, and if she falls too much further, expect to hear more about shady real estate deals and lavish lifestyles as Obama and Edwards have their characters called into question as well. Our band of crusading heroes could become a circular firing squad real quick.
2. Our next most likely nominee took a radioactive position on the critical issue of immigration. Immigration is likely to be a bigger deal in this election cycle than ever before. It may not feel like a big deal to everyone, but a lot of people in a lot of places around the country are understandably unsettled that recently there are a lot more people around who don't look like the folks they are used to seeing around, who speak in an unfamiliar accent, if not an unfamiliar language. It's not racist to find this unsettling, it's just human nature. As with national security, this issue resonates in some of the deepest recesses of our psychology.
The issue of whether to issue drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants is a complicated one; ultimately the experts consider it a sensible idea that benefits the citizens they may crash into. But that subtlety is lost on three out of every four voters, including a lot of likely democratic voters and the vast majority of swing voters, who find the idea of issuing licenses to people who aren't legally supposed to be here incomprehensible, if not offensive. New York's Governor Spitzer, whose complex three-tiered licensing plan was at issue in the debate, announced this week he was abandoning the policy to try to save his governorship after "his standing with voters [had fallen] faster and further than any politician in recent New York history," as the Times reported.
Yet Barack Obama, after criticizing Hillary for sensibly trying to explain her way out of supporting the policy, declared his own unconditional support for it. (If you're among the minority who supports it, you may have found this a noble gesture; if you're among the other three quarters, "sanctimonious" is probably closer to the mark.) And even after Spitzer was forced to ditch the policy, Obama's spokesman has reassured us he remains as firmly committed to it as ever.
Somewhere in this great land there must be other politicians still willing to support giving licenses to illegal immigrants. But I doubt many of them are daft enough to expect to inspire a historic movement to heal our nation's political divisions while championing such an overwhelmingly unpopular policy.
Of course, we are Democrats, we stand on principle for the right and the good. But if three-quarters of voters fail to understand where we are coming from, whose fault is that exactly? Is it their fault for being too busy and/or not studious enough to get the public policy degree needed to appreciate the logic of this policy? Are we democrats, or Platonists?
Immigration can be a tricky issue for progressives to connect with voters on, but it is not impossible. Hillary was inexplicably unprepared, but at least tried to make the point that our whole immigration system right now is crazy, and that's the only reason governors would ever consider a patently crazy idea like issuing licenses to illegal immigrants in order to protect their own citizens on the road. Like Hillary, you don't support licensing, you support comprehensive reform. We can be true to our principles and not get beat up on the immigration issue (this memo [pdf] explains a sensible way forward on pages 12-13). But we have to respect and respond to voters' concerns on this one, or we're going to get burned.
One year prior to each of our last two presidential elections, we democrats felt confident we would win. The opportunity was there. It is there again now. Anyone want to bet who wins?