When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
It was pile-on-Hillary night at the October 30 Democratic debate. The big question for pundits afterwards was did the other candidates, who went on the attack against the frontrunner, draw blood/land a punch/choose your cliche.
As Hillary's lead grows (she is now 38 points ahead of the other Democrats, according to one recent poll) her opponents are increasingly focused on taking her down.
Many--especially the rightwing bloggers--made a lot of the "gotcha" moment when Tim Russert pressed Hillary on a proposal by New York governor Eliot Spitzer to grant driver's licenses to illegal aliens. Hillary gave a qualified, noncommittal answer: sympathetic to Spitzer for trying to deal with a difficult problem, saying that no governor can solve the problems created by the lack of national immigration reform. Actually, I agreed with her, and so did most of the other candidates. It's a complex issue, and despite Chris Dodd's bloviating about a driver's license being a "privilege" that illegals don't deserve, demagoguery on immigration just makes for bad policy.
Where Hillary is truly scary, though, is on the issue of war with Iran. It was a relief to hear the other candidates criticize her for sounding like a neocon, and putting the danger posed by Iran in perspective.
Biden, Dodd, and Richardson all pointed out that Iran's nuclear program is not the biggest security threat our nation faces--Bush's World War III rhetoric to the contrary.
And it was good to hear Obama and Edwards calling out Hillary on her Republican-like stands. Obama reminded voters of Hillary's vote for the Iraq war, and criticized her bellicosity on Iran. He made a good point that Hillary's penchant for resisting the release of documents as First Lady is the last thing the country needs after eight years of Bush Administration secrets and lies. Edwards pointed out that her vote declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, a resolution that "looks like it was written by the neocons," gives Bush and Cheney "just what they want" --grounds for another illegal and ill-advised war. And he posed the question whether her failure to stand up to Bush on Iran would end with another "if only I had known then what I know now" lament. In making these points, the other candidates did more than try to pull down the frontrunner, they performed a useful service to voters. (Although, as Dennis Kucinich pointed out, Hillary is not the only one who has refused to take any option off the table to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon).
Despite the useful criticism from the field, and some amusing theatrics, there is, overall, something discouraging about these debates. Edwards put his finger on it when he called the political system in our country "rigged" and "corrupt":
"Do you believe that the candidate who's raised the most money from Washington lobbyists, Democrat or Republican; the candidate who's raised the most money from the health industry -- drug companies, health insurance companies; the candidate who's raised the most money from the defense industry, Republican or Democrat; who -- and the answer to all those questions is that's Senator Clinton -- will she be the person who brings about the change in this country?" he asked. "I believe in Santa Claus, I believe in the Tooth Fairy, but I don't think that's going to happen. I really don't."
Yet it is precisely this fundraising that has built Hillary's "inevitability" machine.
Just before the debate, I listened to a talk radio program on NPR in which the host asked a political analyst what it would take to knock Hillary out of the lead. A great debate performance by one of the other candidates, perhaps? There followed a discussion of moments of high drama in past campaigns: Howard Dean's "scream" in Iowa, Ed Muskie reportedly crying during a speech in New Hampshire in 1972, which gave George McGovern the edge for the nomination that year.
But hanging over all this is the specter of the $90 million Hillary had raised by the middle of October. That huge amount of cash so are outstrips the other candidates, it seems like a silly game of make-believe to pretend that a clever quip during a debate, or even the extremely important and legitimate points the candidates made last night, could change the dynamic of the race. It doesn't matter how trenchant your comments are if you are drowned out by the amplified voice of a frontrunner who can buy all the airtime that's left in this extremely short primary season. Just ask Mike Gravel, whose failure to meet fundraising and poll-number targets got him kicked off the debate stage. He held a solo event in a nearby building, answering the questions the other candidates were asked in a poorly covered shadow debate of one.
Money and paid media aren't everything. But they count for more and more. And often the analysis of how the candidates handle themselves, whether they land punches, or whether they have gone off the rails, closely tracks the money even if the people doing the analyzing don't say so. Take the case of Dennis Kucinich, who consistently makes the clearest, most critical points in these debates, and yet is considered laughable by the jaded, knowing media. Kucinich pointed out that Tim Russert's demand that the candidates "pledge" to rid Iran of nukes was a dangerous game. The media was partially responsible for leading us into the ill-fated war in Iraq, Kucinich pointed out, and Russert should be careful about heading in the same direction in Iran.
But Russert got him back. Was it true, he asked Kucinich, that he had seen a UFO? Shirley McClain has written about Kucinich's close encounter with a small, triangular space craft that hovered over a balcony at her home in a recent book. This is the kind of media moment that later seems defining. Kucinich made a joke about it, and pointed out that Jimmy Carter also had a UFO sighting. (Carter was also fatefully pursued by a very aggressive rabbit on a fishing trip, you may recall). These anecdotes have appeal because they follow a predetermined script. Kucinich is a kook. Carter is a wimp. Hillary is tough.
So did the other candidates land enough punches to upset Hillary at last night's debate? My guess is that the mainstream media's answer will be no. Not because they didn't do enough to shine a light on what makes her the wrong candidate for the Democrats. There were plenty of substantive points, many of them cleverly and memorably put. But the big race--for money and credibility with the big donors, the professional pols, and the pundits who tell us all what we should think is almost over, even as regular voters are just beginning to tune in.