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Making Lemonade From Lemons After Debate

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Hey, what about the Democratic debate on ABC the other night? I know that Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos are being raked over the coals in many quarters for their line of questioning which tended toward the muckraking end of the spectrum. To be fair, I have seen Democrats taking umbrage with them not just for the questions asked of Senator Obama, but also for some of the questions they asked of Senator Clinton, too. It's nice to see Democrats united about something again.

I agree that the time might have been better spent discussing real issues and delving into the actual nuts and bolts of some of the ideas that have been floated. However, people are people and if voters are genuinely concerned about a candidate's truthfulness because of repeated misstatements on the campaign trail; or if comments about small town voters need to be better explained for a large television audience, it may be uncomfortable for the candidates (and their supporters), but it is probably better to address those problems candidly than to let them lie around like unexploded IEDs.

Democratic partisans should also remember that the debate audience includes the entire American public, not simply people who by nature wish Senator Obama or Senator Clinton well. If there are rumors, even unfounded rumors, about someone's patriotism because of a ludicrous flag pin controversy, or other things circulating that could hurt a candidate in the general election, a candidate should address them at some point to put them to rest. Whether such rumors should have been trotted out in a national forum is, well, debatable, but they were. Some of the subjects brought up have probably already been thoroughly aired as well.

Certainly Senator Obama was roughed up a bit in the first 45 minutes of the debate. He seemed unaccustomed to hard questions from the press and unprepared when there were equally hard follow-up questions. Clinton supporters have been claiming for months that Senator Obama has been treated with kid gloves by the media. The gloves apparently came off Tuesday night, at least at the debate.

Since the debate Senator Obama has been making lemonade out of lemons. (My interpretation, of course.) He's been asserting that he and his campaign offer a better alternative to the harsh tone, the "attack" politics and trivial issues that were on display at the debate.

The Washington Post quotes him in "Obama Looks To Turn Debate Into a Victory":

"Washington hasn't gotten the news yet that people want something different," the senator from Illinois told an audience at a campaign rally in Raleigh. "Last night we set a new record. It took us 45 minutes . . . before we heard about health care. Forty-five minutes before we heard about Iraq. Forty-five minutes before we heard about jobs. That's how Washington is."

However, in classic Obama style, after talking about wanting to move beyond attack politics, he goes after Senator Clinton.

Again, from the Washington Post:

In Thursday's narrative, Obama saw Clinton's performance as a metaphor for the kind of politics he wants to move beyond.

He called Washington a town of "gotcha games," "anything goes" and "slash-and-burn politics." Clinton, he said, "looked in her element" on the stage at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia as he grappled with uncomfortable questions.

The crowd erupted. "That's her right, to twist the knife a little bit," Obama continued. "That's how our politics has been taught to be played."

It's this kind of sleight-of-hand that annoys Clinton supporters: when Senator Obama claims to be above the fray and goes on to take shots at Senator Clinton with exactly the kind of old style political attacks he claims to abhor. It's also a little disingenuous to blame Senator Clinton for the questioning he received from Gibson and Stephanopoulos. Certainly Senator Clinton says similar things during her campaign appearances but she is not campaigning on the idea of changing the political landscape or claiming to be a new kind of "post-partisan" politician.

I would also point out that it's fine to embrace the idea of a kinder, gentler campaign, but Republicans will not campaign that way, as Senator Obama surely knows. He told his audience in Raleigh that "If Republicans come at me, I will come right back at them." He will have to perform better than he did at the debate in Philadelphia. Likewise, should Senator Obama become president, the rest of the world is not likely to refrain from attack politics and trivial issues. If he thinks Gibson and Stephanopoulos packed a punch, wait until he has to deal with some real baddies.

Senator Obama and his supporters may believe with some justification that he was treated harshly during ABC's debate earlier this week. However, it is time that the media, in general, begins holding Senator Obama to the same standard it has for Senator Clinton. If he does win the nomination he will face what is usually called "the Republican attack machine." It will make the knocks he's taken from the Clinton campaign look like playground stuff. If he becomes president he can expect a press corps that will sooner or later ask tough questions -- even with George W. Bush the media eventually asked real questions. No candidate should get a free ride, not even Senator Obama.