And the winner of the 21st debate of the Democratic presidential race is…

Right-Wing Talking Points.

At a moment when even John McCain agrees that the American economy is in a recession, when the U.S. trade deficit is breaking records, when the vice president and the secretary of state stand accused of organizing torture parties in Washington, when the president has gotten us bogged down in two foreign quagmires, and when official gaming of globalization has stirred up food riots around the world, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spent most of the last debate before the critical Pennsylvania primary trying to out-FOX one another.

Instead of engaging in a needed discussion about economic issues — especially the trade policies that are devastating the Keystone State and so much of the rest of the country — the Democratic contenders sounded as if they were reading outtakes from a particularly lame Bill O’Reilly program.

To be fair, this was not entirely the fault of the candidates. The line of questioning from ABC “News” personalities Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos — Wednesday night’s moderators, who pummeled Obama for most of the night — almost made a viewer long for a long-winded intervention by the CNN’s self-absorbed but reasonably serious Wolf Blitzer. And the questions from viewers appeared to have been selected with the purpose of raising doubts about whether these people may be spending just a little too much time listening to Rush Limbaugh.

There were, of course, inquiries about the Rev, Jeremiah Wright Jr., including a demand that Obama explain whether he thinks an ex-Marine who raised legitimate questions about U.S. foreign policy should be considered “patriotic.” Clinton made a bad moment worse by bringing up Hamas and Minister Louis Farrakhan in an obvious attempt to link Wright — and by extension Obama — to groups and individuals who do not get an especially free ride in U.S. media.

Clinton’s trip to Bosnia was revisited, as was a comment she made 16 years ago about baking cookies.

Obama got asked why he does not wear a flag pin.

And both candidates were prodded by millionaire media personalities to talk about “elitism.”

But the absolute low point of a debate that rarely left the low road came when former Clinton aide Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his meetings with Bill Ayers, a 1960s Weather Underground radical who went on to become a college professor.

Obama said he did not think he should be held to account for something someone he knows did “40 years ago when I was 8 years old.”

Then, sounding more like Sean Hannity than a former anti-war activist from the ’60s, Clinton said, “I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after (Ayers’) reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more… I know Senator Obama is a good man, and I respect him greatly. But I think this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.”

Remarkably, Obama went down the Hannity hole with Clinton, complaining that Clinton’s husband, when he served as president, “pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.”

This was an ugly, unilluminating debate that neglected meaningful concerns because so much time was spent introducing what had been the silly side issues of the far right to the mainstream discourse. It was especially rough on Obama. But there was no winner, except, perhaps, John McCain.