If you compare last night's Democratic presidential debate to one of the classic, Las Vegas-style prizefights--from the high-stakes betting on favorites to the carefully-scripted, boxing-style introductions of the candidates from separate corners--then it's fair to assume that on the day after their struggling performance, John Edwards and Barack Obama are channeling Marlon Brando and mumbling, "I could've been a contender."
Could have, but, not quite. Edwards and Obama walked into the Sin City Showdown with the cards stacked in their favor. Hillary Clinton took a serious beating in the last debate--with more than a little help from Tim Russert and Brian Williams, thanks to Taylor Marsh and her delicious deconstruction of that transparent hit job--and familiar questions were once again raised on the Clinton brand of centrism and parsing. Edwards and Obama have focused their messaging on immigration, health care, Social Security, energy and Iraq--and these were red meat for working class Democrats in Vegas.
But something funny happened to Senators Edwards and Obama on their way to Las Vegas. Maybe the high-roller suites have complimentary testosterone and egos on the pillows, or, possibly they bumped into Elvis, who told them, "A little less conversation and a little more action." They lost their mojos. Instead of throwing the hungry audience sound bites that were wrapped in juicy, red meat, the two candidates tossed stale, Republican talking points at frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the audience booed and hissed. Actually, it wasn't funny. The specter of a Democratic crowd of casino workers, students and SEIU members booing the populist John Edwards was quite painful.
Unfortunately, Obama and Edwards have often parroted right-wing talking points against Clinton--from Obama's ridiculous "Cheney-lite" platitudes to Edwards' grandiose pronouncements on "electability." Last night was no exception. Only minutes into the debate, Edwards set the tone and declared Clinton was part of a "corrupt" and "very small, very powerful, very well-financed group" that is entrenched in Washington. Who are these people? Perhaps John was referring to United States Senate, a "very small, powerful, very well-financed group" that, umm, counted him as a member.
Clinton smacked it down with a warning across the bow. "I don't mind taking hits on my record, on issues. But when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook."
Barack Obama also had an opportunity to test drive another not-so-carefully-scripted sound bite on Social Security, which his campaign desperately hopes to engineer into a signature issue. (HuffPo blogger Jonathan Tasini and others have reminded Camp Obama there is no Social Security crisis. Seriously.) His idea is to lift the cap on payroll taxes to completely to pay for Social Security. Clinton reminds Obama that Social Security is the third rail of American politics and the proposal is akin to "a $1 trillion tax increase."
"This is the kind of thing that I would expect from Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani," Obama declared with a flourish. "Where we start playing with numbers--we start playing with numbers in order to try to make a point." Obama was loudly booed by the audience. Hopefully the not-so-bright speechwriter has a virtual pink slip on their Blackberry.
The booing and hissing at the Democratic debate did not necessarily happen because Hillary Clinton was the sentimental favorite, or, even as Edwards suggested, some of the questions were planted. The crowd gets it--even though Edwards, Obama and their strategists have not yet had the realization. Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake says it best: "You never repeat right wing talking points to attack your own, ever. You never enter that echo chamber as a participant. Ever."
Do not mimic, repeat, parrot and tender the same messages inspired, created, and dittoed by the Rush Limbaughs and Karl Roves. That should be Democratic Politics 101, especially after the lessons of the previous 15 or 16 years. Despite the meta-messaging of the Barack Obama e-telligentisa, this will not change. It cannot change because the right wing has an incremental "wedge" strategy that continually redefines the culture wars--expanding hate crimes to cover sexual orientation was just declared unconstitutional in Pennsylvania, Bill O'Reilly contrives a "War on Christmas"--on an almost daily basis.
Hillary gets it because she has been the right-wing's favorite punching bag. That's why she is leading, at least for now. "I'm ahead," she said, a not-so-subtle reminder to the Nevada audience that she leads in that state by almost 30 points.
John Edwards should get this one, too. His campaign has been hijacked by right-wing harpy Ann Coulter and her gay-baiting. He should get it, but doesn't. Obama will understand this one day--perhaps after Mitt Romney continues to link his name to a certain terrorist mastermind and the "play on words" becomes a full-fledged campaign slogan. Or, maybe he won't.
Republican talking points are never a winning hand when they are played by Democrats. So here is a memo to the staff, speechwriters, and, the assorted amen chorus of the Edwards and Obama campaigns: What happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas.