ABC News devoted the first 30 minutes or so of the roughly two-hour Democratic debate on April 17 to trivial and petty gotcha questions, which pretty much set the tone for the evening.
“Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” George Stephanopoulos actually asked Barack Obama—twice.
Obama was also quizzed, via one of two video questions from voters that ABC saw fit to include, about his seeming reluctance to wear an American flag lapel pin. Of course, the kindly woman asking the question prefaced it by insisting that she wasn’t questioning Obama’s patriotism, even though her questions served no other possible purpose.
“I revere the American flag,” Obama assured the woman, thereby staking out the same position that every single person who has ever sought the presidency has had.
A moderator question allowed Hillary Clinton to talk about William Ayers, a violent Vietnam-era radical-turned-college professor who now serves on the board of the same Chicago-based philanthropic trust that Obama does.
In theory, this all should have made for the half-hour from hell for Obama, the convergence—on national television in prime time—of the various flare-ups that form the basis of his enemies’ efforts to portray him as a vaguely un- or anti-American character. Instead, though, it probably strengthened his already firm grip on the Democratic nomination.
For one thing, he will probably win sympathy from those who believe that the deck was stacked against him in the first segment of the debate. How many Democratic activists recoiled at ABC’s decision to utilize a line of questioning—epitomized by the “Who loves America more?” question—that Democrats ordinarily have to appear on the Fox News Channel to face?
It’s not that Obama was particularly smooth or nimble in his responses—he wasn’t and, on the whole, his performance seemed shakier tonight than in the most recent debates—but he did succeed, several times, at calmly making note of the absurdly petty level at which the debate was being conducted.
“You take one person’s statement if it’s not properly phrased,” he said after Clinton took ABC’s bait and hit him over the head with his much-discussed “bitter” comment from last week, “and you just beat it to death, and that’s what Senator Clinton has been doing for the past four days.”
And when Clinton brought up Ayers, Obama coolly dismissed her attack as “the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with.”
“This kind of game in which anybody that I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that somehow their ideas could be attributed to me—I think the American people are smarter than that,” he said.
When the Wright issue was introduced, Clinton tried to stick the knife into Obama without it looking like she was doing so, reminding viewers of some of the most inflammatory rhetoric associated with the minister but also saying that she had only spoken out on the subject because she’d been asked “a direct question” about it.
Later, when she raised Ayers’ name, she did so under the pretense that she was merely previewing what Republicans will say about Obama in the fall—part of her campaign’s strategy of convincing Democrats that only those with the surname Clinton are capable of defeating Republicans in elections.
Obama was able to throw this back at her by saying that “by Senator Clinton’s own vetting standard, I don’t think she would make it.” He was referring to pardons that Bill Clinton issued to members of the same Weather Underground movement to which Ayers belonged.
Like much else she says and does, Clinton’s attack tonight will work with a certain audience: Those who are, have been and always will be devoted to her. This is not an insignificant group. But just as many people have a very different opinion of her—like the 6 in 10 voters who don’t believe she’s honest, something she was asked about at the debate. As Clinton piled on with one cheap shot after another, her reputation with this latter group was only reinforced. Basically, she probably didn’t lose any supporters with her debate performance. But she didn’t gain any new ones either.
“What I think I’ve displayed during the course of this primary is that I can take a punch,” Obama said at one point. “I’ve taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton.”
What he didn’t say was that while Hillary Clinton throws all these punches at Obama, she’s hurting herself just as much as she hurts him.