Call it a landmark moment in the history of presidential debates: A heckler in the audience who seemed to speak for the vast majority of Americans.
The first twenty minutes of Tuesday's Democratic showdown in Las Vegas passed without a single substantive question, as the NBC moderators busied themselves prodding the soft spots of identity politics. Barack Obama was asked if New Hampshire whites didn't vote for him because he was black. Hillary Clinton was asked how race had become such a big factor in the election. John Edwards was asked, "What is a white male to do?" That was actually the question.
Then some guy started shouting from the back of the auditorium. "Will you stop all these race-based questions?" he hollered. There was an awkward pause around the big table where everyone sat. The moderators, Tim Russert and Brian Williams, looked guilty and confused. For two days, the cable networks had run wall-to-wall coverage of the race-tinged war of words between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters. One can imagine why the network thought the mudslinging would be the subject of the debate.
But the candidates declined to engage. "Neither race nor gender should be a part of this campaign," said Clinton. "I know that John and Hillary have always been committed to racial equality," said Obama. "I'm proud of the fact that we have a woman and an African American who are very, very serious candidates for the presidency," said Edwards.
The Democratic Party is at this moment divided, not as much along the lines of race or sex, but because they have three strong candidates, with similar policy positions and different talents, fighting to run the party and the nation. It is not an easy choice and for those first twenty minutes, Russert and Williams were not helping. So the heckler spoke up, and the moderators, wisely, moved on.
What followed was a mostly tame, respectful affair. The three contenders all tried to look presidential and sober, comfortable with the facts and committed to improving the country. They joined together in pointing out the apparent failures of President Bush, their opposition to nuclear waste storage in a Nevada mountain, and their determination to begin a prompt drawdown of troops from Iraq, even if they differed slightly on their plans for the residual forces that would stay behind. They all said that colleges and universities should be forced to allow military recruiters on their campuses.
What shots they took at each other were subtle. Clinton snuck in the fact that Edwards had once supported the nuclear storage plan (he has since changed his mind) and that Obama had Illinois financial backers in the nuclear industry (although he still opposes the Nevada plan). Obama pointed out that Clinton had played a Karl Rove-like fear card in New Hampshire, when she warned ominously that the next President has to be ready for a likely terrorist attack. (Clinton gave a non-denial of sorts, saying she was "not going to characterize" her own comments). Edwards pointed out that both Clinton and Obama have raised a lot of money from the drug and health insurance companies.
At two points during the night, Clinton demonstrated her odd habit of taking two sides of a single issue in just a few moments. First she said that she accepted the claim by her billionaire supporter, Robert Johnson, that he had not referred to Obama's teenage drug use during a campaign stop Sunday. Seconds later, she said his comments were "out of bounds." "And he has said that," she added, even though Johnson has admitted no such thing. Later in the debate, she admitted to voting for a 2001 bankruptcy reform bill, though she added, "I was happy that it never became law."
Edwards returned his answers time and again to the central theme of his campaign, his identification with the common man. "The incomes at the very top are going up. Profits of big corporations are going up. But the incomes of middle-class families are not going up," he said. When asked his greatest weakness, he said he was overly moved by the agony of others. "I sometimes have a very powerful emotional response to pain that I see around me," he said.
For his part, Obama focused several of his answers back on his central argument for the White House: His ability to bring different people together. In fact, he said the word "together" 10 times over the course of two hours, forcing Clinton to intervene. "I respect what Barack said about setting the vision, setting the tone, bringing people together," she said. "But I think you have to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy."
There were no major body blows or game changers; the event ended much as it began, with three talented and still viable contenders on a stage. But the debate held an important lesson for both the candidates and the media. Race and gender are issues to be dealt with seriously, not pawns to be sacrificed in a political chess match. If that lesson goes unheeded, there are hecklers out there, ready to stand up, interrupt and put us all back on course.