In his 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King admitted that his campaign of nonviolent resistance did not preclude the introduction of "constructive, nonviolent tension" into the political culture. Indeed, Dr. King made the case that, coupled with one's principles, such tension was necessary in order to bring about any needed change (that ever-present buzzword of the current Democratic campaign).
Constructive, nonviolent tension is as good a way as any to describe Obama's parrying of the blizzard of charges (some more substantive than others) hurled his way last night. As many have observed, the biggest cut he opened over Sen. Clinton's eye came with his crack that while he was community organizing, she was on the board at Wal-Mart. But this jaw-dropping line also raised a substantive point: Are Democrats to consider Senator Clinton's six years of board membership there as part of her "35 years of experience" working for change?
During his Good Morning America interview on the same day, Obama signaled his intention to use unofficial co-candidate Bill Clinton's tortured history with the truth against him. "Statements that are not factually accurate," may indeed ring a bell with some voters. Yet Obama's remarks were not a below-the-belt rehash of Lewinsky-era arcana. Obama immediately used the moment to pivot toward his diagnosis of what is wrong with politics in America: It's the cynicism, stupid.
(For what it's worth, Clinton aide Howard Wolfson is correct that citing Bill Clinton's lies is a right-wing talking point. Though Wolfson -- and much of the left -- seems to neglect the fact that simply because something is a right-wing talking point doesn't make it automatically untrue.)
In truth, the either-or assumption that Obama would have to choose between criticizing his critics or keeping his above-the-fray dignity was always a false dichotomy. The reason is simple. All critical comments are not created equal. Some critiques have substance, while others are just pollution, deployed in order to muddy the waters. Senator Clinton will use either kind of critique. It's part of her "I can take it and dish it out" spirit, and she showed it last night (her healthcare debating tactics were substantive, her "slumlord" smear was not, especially for a member of a political dynasty that has itself taken money from so many questionable characters). Obama, if he is to keep intact the mantle of change he says he wants to bring to politics, must pick his spots more judiciously, as Dr. King himself had to in his "Letter," in which he also found himself responding to critics.
When asked last night whether he thought a hypothetical, still-living Dr. King would endorse his candidacy, Obama wisely took a pass (just as he wriggled his way out of a similarly stupid question about whether or not Bill Clinton was, indeed, the first black president). But it was part modesty. The analogies between King and Obama go beyond blackness and a flair for words. The content of their respective messages -- Dr. King's nonviolent action and Sen. Obama's calls for a less cynically brutal political culture -- share common thematic cause. What wasn't clear before last night was whether Obama shared King's discipline of addressing his critics on purely substantive grounds. Now you can add that quality to the list, too.