The Democrats Play Trivial Pursuit

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Matt Rourke / AP

Sen. Barack Obama, right, and Sen. Hillary Clinton before the start of the Democratic Party debate in Philadelphia on April 16

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama tells an amusing story about his first tour through downstate Illinois, when he had the audacity to order Dijon mustard on his cheeseburger at a TGI Friday's. His political aide hastily informed the waitress that Obama didn't want Dijon at all, and thrust a yellow bottle of ordinary-American heartland-values mustard at him instead. The perplexed waitress informed Obama that she had Dijon if he wanted. He smiled and said thanks. "As the waitress walked away, I leaned over and whispered that I didn't think there were any photographers around," Obama recalled.

Obama's memoir dripped with contempt for modern gotcha politics, for a campaign culture obsessed with substantively irrelevant but supposedly symbolic gaffes like John Kerry ordering Swiss cheese or Al Gore sighing or George H.W. Bush checking his watch or Michael Dukakis looking dorky in a tank. "What's troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics—the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial," he wrote.

Last night at the National Constitution Center, at a Democratic debate that was hyped by ABC as a discussion of serious constitutional issues, America got to see exactly what Obama was complaining about. At a time of foreign wars, economic collapse and environmental peril, the cringe-worthy first half of the debate focused on such crucial matters as Senator Obama's comments about rural bitterness, his former pastor, an obscure sixties radical with whom he was allegedly "friendly," and the burning constitutional question of why he doesn't wear an American flag pin on his lapel — with a single detour into Senator Hillary Clinton's yarn about sniper fire in Tuzla. Apparently, Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos ran out of time before they could ask Obama why he's such a lousy bowler.

It must be said that Obama did not seem very comfortable on the defensive, and he had trouble answering questions like whether he's more patriotic than the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Since "performance" is all that the talking heads ever notice, they'll probably declare Clinton the winner of the debate. She constantly salted Obama's wounds, all the while insisting that she was merely concerned that Republicans would salt them in the fall, and that his various controversies simply "raised questions" about his electability; at one point she claimed that his exhaustively chewed-over relationship with Wright "deserves further exploration," which is kind of like saying that Whitewater deserves further investigation. "These are legitimate questions, as everything is when you run for office," Clinton said.

But maybe Obama is right that Americans are tired of "the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with," as he put in his lapel-pin answer. And even if they aren't, it's nice to hear someone critique that image-obsessed, context-deprived soundbite culture — a culture, incidentally, in which Stephanopoulos flourished when he was spinning for the Clintons.

Last night's debate did not reveal any big policy differences between Obama and Clinton. But it did reveal their different approaches to politics, and the different arguments for their candidacies that stem from those approaches.

Clinton's main argument was that she can beat John McCain because she's already been vetted in this culture, "having gone through 16 years on the receiving end of what the Republican Party dishes out." She's basically saying that her dirty laundry — the questionable money she made in cattle futures, the Travelgate firings, her kiss of Suha Arafat, her husband's pardons, the unpleasantries of 1998 — is no longer newsworthy, and the mere fact of her political survival shows that it's irrelevant. "I have a lot of baggage, and everyone has rummaged through it for many years," she said. Obama hasn't rehashed that baggage, although he did slyly remind Americans about her 1992 crack about staying home and baking cookies, ostensibly to make that point that she had been treated unfairly, probably with an ulterior motive. But in any case, it's not like she's survived all that baggage unscathed; she's got sky-high unfavorable ratings. And it's not like Republicans would agree not to raise all that baggage in the fall if she somehow became the nominee. Hey, she even said everything's legitimate when you run for office.

Obama's argument is that he can rise above the divisive politics of the '90s — not just the intense partisanship, but the constant posturing and point-scoring in the service of winning a news cycle. He portrays Clinton as a victim of those war-room politics — but also a veteran practitioner. "Senator Clinton learned the wrong lesson, because she's adopted the same tactics," he said last night. He's talking about the culture of perpetual spin, where everything is fair game in the service, including your opponent's kindergarten dreams of grandeur. It's a game of guilt by association, as Obama said last night, "the kind of game in which anybody I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship, their ideas can be attributed to me."

This makes for extremely stupid politics, where substance is only relevant to catch politicians in flip-flops or mistakes. Last night, for example, Gibson tried to nail Obama over capital gains taxes, revealing only his own misunderstanding of the difference between correlation and causation. For all the back-and-forth over a crazy Weatherman he once served with on a board, Obama never got to tell voters that he opposed the war in Iraq from the start. For all the back-and-forth over her Tuzla goof — Obama stayed out of it, although he acknowledged that his campaign aides addressed it when asked — Clinton never got to mention anything she's done in the Senate. And the only real constitutional issue that got discussed was the right to bear arms.

It's funny, because the intended point of Obama's ill-advised comments about small-town voters was that they "cling" to wedge issues involving God and guns because they've lost faith in our political culture's ability to solve problems. It's an arguable point. But last night suggests that there's little denying that our political culture has lost its ability to illuminate any issue more complicated than the appropriate condiments for a red-blooded American to eat.