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Flag Pins, Cookies, and a Depressing Debate

04/17/2008 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What a weird night.

Twenty-one Democratic debates ago the weirdness was Mike Gravel, a cranky octogenarian former senator from Alaska, who advocated national referendums for everything. Now we're down to two serious, impressive candidates but the weirdness remains.

You have to attribute a lot of that to ABC News, which ran last night's debate. Charlie Gibson, who is often avuncular and charming, was unctuous and petty and wrong. There was the constant harping on all the small symbolic issues of the campaign: why Barack Obama doesn't usually wear an American flag lapel pin, his comments about small town Pennsylvanians, his association with a former member of the Weather Underground, and his infamous minister, Jeremiah Wright. They should have just thrown in a "when-did-you-leave-Al-Qaeda" question, too.

It's not that these symbolic issues aren't without import. I've written before that Obama had a Dukakis problem -- cultural vulnerabilities where Republicans could rip him up. But that's different than making those the focus of a presidential debate.

If Americans needed more proof that the media elite are rich and out of touch, Gibson gave them more. In the St. Anselm's College debate in New Hampshire, Gibson asserted that average professors at the college, using them as a proxy for average Americans, make $100,000. They don't. The median household income is around $46,000. For families with married couples it's closer to $68,000. Last night in Philadelphia, he blithely repeated the canard that cutting capital gains taxes yields more revenue. The short answer is that sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. The rooster crows and the sun rises. Just because revenue has risen following some capital gains cuts doesn't mean it automatically yields a cut. Gibson stated it as fact.

I thought Obama did better than most commentators did. He took a lot of crap and answered it pretty sensibly, saying that the issues were distractions. I wish he could have used Bill Maher's line about the flag pin being "costume jewelry." He made the point that sometimes candidates make misstatements and noted Hillary Clinton's famous line about baking cookies from the 1992 campaign.

He could have been tougher. Recall that Clinton, for whom my spouse works now and back then, was answering in response to a question about her representation of a failed Arkansas savings and loan. What Obama didn't say is that she could have, of course, chosen to represent other clients. But she chose that one as a partner in the Rose Law Firm of Little Rock. She blew off a legitimate question in 1992 by making it a question of feminism. Her answer backfired on her. Yet Obama was gracious enough to note that the 1992 attack on her as attacking stay-at-home moms was unfair. Clinton could have acknowledged the graciousness, especially since she was herself apologizing about her Bosnia-under-sniper-fire canard. But she kept attacking, which scored points last night with pundits. I'm not sure it's going to translate into more votes next week in Pennsylvania.

On Social Security, Clinton has wisely not committed to raising the cap on income that falls under the FICA tax. Obama has, either courageously or foolishly, depending on how you look at it, brought up this option repeatedly. I've been surprised that this hasn't been an issue for many months when I wrote a piece called "Is $97,000 Rich?" Obama is essentially calling for a huge tax increase. Last night he seemed to suggest again that he might not tax income between $97,000 and $250,000, which is odd to say the least. As I understand it, President Obama would be smitten with the idea of applying the F.I.C.A. tax on wages from zero to $97,000 and then exempting income from $97,000 to $250,000, and then start taxing it again. That's both illogical and regressive. There may be a case for raising the cap but there's no intellectual argument for taxation followed by a pause in taxation followed by more taxation. Clinton's wisely called for kicking the whole thing to a commission, which is what John McCain has done. Beleaguered, Obama noted that the sainted 1983 Reagan-O'Neill commission on Social Security, headed by Alan Greenspan, raised the retirement age and raised the Social Security tax. Fair enough. But tossing out policy proposals on the fly doesn't make any sense.

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