01/21/2008 09:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Edwards Excels in Ferocious Democratic Debate

Maybe Nevada was a turning point in the Democratic presidential race, because Monday's CNN debate started tough and got unusually ugly in a hurry.

Barack Obama continued to challenge both Clintons for pushing a series of assertions that were "not factually accurate," teeing off controversial comments that the former President made about the Nevada Caucus. Accused of inaccuracy, Sen. Clinton hit back with inaccuracy, claiming that Obama said he "really liked" President Reagan's ideas. In fact, Obama actually said Reagan helped establish the GOP as "the party of ideas," which Obama was quick to stress in a rebuttal. Then he applied the
Stoller Maxim -- use your rivals' lies to reveal their character -- to argue that Clinton's conduct raises questions about whether she can earn the public trust and be an effective advocate for change. "Truthfulness during campaigns matters," he thundered for emphasis.

Clinton was more Rovian in her attacks, as she tried to pin Obama with her own foibles. Assailing his "present" votes in the Illinois Senate, Clinton chided Obama: "It is very difficult having a straight up debate with you because you never take responsibility!" The accusation drew boos from the crowd. (The Times reported that Clinton's line caused "huge boos from the audience for the first time.") Yet while Clinton and Obama exchanged their personal barbs, John Edwards broke through with the best arguments of the night.

Edwards tweaked both his opponents for making the debate about political squabbling instead of public policy. Returning to his populist economic platform -- especially salient as Americans ponder a recession -- he reminded voters that he was the only candidate to outline a comprehensive plan to end poverty, and the first to introduce a national economic stimulus proposal. His plan came out weeks before Clinton and Obama. The program drove the "party's policy agenda," as Paul Krugman explained, by advocating "aid to unemployed workers, aid to cash-strapped state and local governments," and alternative energy, (most of which Clinton later adopted in her plan). And while the debate moderators kept pushing trite racial questions, even asking Obama if Bill Clinton was the "first black president," Edwards outlined a vision of racial and economic equality, where "every American is of equal value."

This post first appeared at The Nation.