The Democrats’ Depressing Debate

The Democrats’ Depressing Debate

The candidates ignored race, class and religion, and fumbled the key question of how to get out of Iraq.


Maybe it’s the fact that I’m sitting in my hotel room, thirty miles up the interstate from Orangeburg, with Johnny Cash on the headphones singing populist murderer’s tunes. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been zigzagging around my native South these past six weeks, taking the political temperature of grassroots Democrats. (In sum, it’s 100 degrees and climbing fast, even in the most “Republican” parts of Dixie.) But as I sit here sipping the obligatory late-night bourbon and trying to make sense of what I saw at South Carolina State tonight, what I can’t get over has very little to do with what I actually heard and saw. It has everything to do with what the lily-livered, consultant-scripted Democratic Gang of Eight–OK, Gang of Six, as Mike Gravel has clearly never met a consultant, bless his heart, and poor dear Dennis has never been able to afford one–could not muster the guts to say.

There was nary a syllable uttered about race. This is not only shocking at a debate set in a state, and a region–not to mention a country–whose politics and culture and economic caste system, whose everything, has been defined and twisted and perverted by the artificial line between “black” and “white” for its entire history. It’s not only shocking in the midst of a war that resembles Vietnam not only in its sensational waste of human life but in its undeniable quality of being a rich people’s war and a poor–and disproportionately black and Hispanic–people’s fight. It’s even more shocking because these candidates were standing directly across from the site of one of the most infamous civil rights atrocities of the late 1960s, the Orangeburg massacre, when South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened up on black students protesting a segregated bowling alley right here at South Carolina State and shot three of them dead while wounding twenty-seven more. The story was ignored then, though every officer was unjustly acquitted, and now it has been ignored again–even in the wake of another school shooting that did come up in the debate. But this is a part of the country where African-Americans fought bravely and staunchly and sometimes violently to make the Civil Rights Act a practical reality. And it’s a place where the economic divide that continues to widen is largely–as we saw so vividly in New Orleans, and can just as easily see in Chicago and Los Angeles and New York City–a product of the quieter, subtler, but no less overwhelming white privilege that still prevails not only in South Carolina but in every crevice and corner of this numb and blind country.

Really, “shocking” is too mild a word. Failing to decry the racial and economic divide, on this historically black campus, in front of folks who can’t afford to ignore it, whose history has been written in the very blood of race hate, is downright shameful. The shame extends to all eight candidates. And to all who cheer them on and fail to demand that they not blithely ignore the hideous plank in this nation’s collective eye.

Barack Obama had his chance, of course, with the softball moderator Brian Williams threw him about the Confederate flag. All Obama managed was a dispassionate remark about putting the rebel flag in a museum for good. Not exactly fightin’ words, and the opportunity to expound on what the flag means, and on the far more important substance beyond that divisive symbol, was punted completely. The others had their chances, too, when they were talking about Iraq and talking about the economy and talking about healthcare and failing to talk–as our theme repeats itself–about the American atrocities laid bare in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Race runs through every goddamned bit of it, swift and sure as poison. The Democrats’ silence about it, particularly in this setting, is depressing evidence that even in this moment of historic opportunity for a big, bold, genuinely progressive politics in this country, there is not yet a single leading figure ready to step up and tackle our most pernicious and destructive national sickness.

Aside from John Edwards’s invocation of “the Lord,” in his fumbling response to another softball–about who he considered a “moral leader”–the other issue that both defines and divides Americans was absent from this debate as well. Here in a state where it sometimes seems you can’t spit without hitting a fundamentalist who believes (repeat after me) that “America is a Christian nation” and who devoutly desires to see the Constitution replaced with a combination of English Common Law and Leviticus, religion was off-topic for NBC and the Democrats tonight. The rise of religious fascism might be a problem, all right, but compared to the driving need to know what Obama’s household has done to reduce its energy consumption–well, I think we can all understand the priorities that prevailed.

Not that we can blame NBC. There has been this idea going around that the Democrats have a fabulous, unstoppable array of candidates this year. We can’t lose! This debate gave the lie to that comforting notion in any number of ways. Nothing was more disheartening than the halting performance of Obama and the narcotic drowsiness of South Carolina native Edwards, both of whom demonstrated a painfully obvious inability to stray from their buzz phrases. Edwards, at least, had a few fresh populist points to make when he wasn’t blinking nervously and gazing toward the klieg lights in search of something to say. Edwards was as subdued as his new hairdo–not quite the $5 Jon Tester cut he damn well needs to get to pass as a populist, but an improvement. Still, the story about his family having to leave a restaurant because they couldn’t afford to pay for the meals provided one of the few moments of the entire ninety minutes that average Americans could genuinely relate to. It is nice to know that these people have experienced some measure of humiliation in their lives, so busy are they ignoring the daily humiliations of the people they say they wish to serve.

Obama’s problem tonight was the same thing that’s beginning to make a lot of people wonder: Is there anything beneath the commanding presence and the sparkling rhetoric of “change”? When Brian Williams wound up to what he clearly thought was the defining question of the night–what would you do if two American cities were hit by Al Qaeda?–Obama appeared to panic so badly that he lost the ability to hear what was being asked. The shell is handsome and it shimmers with freshness, much the way Edwards’s did in 2004. But hold it up to your ear, as we all did tonight, and thus far there’s nothing but the hollow echo of the sea roaring back beautifully.

The bigger problem for Obama, heading down the road, is that he does not appear to have a populist streak even half an inch wide. And we are steaming toward an election that will, particularly in the South, be defined by two issues: Iraq, of course, along with the slow-burning economic catastrophe that is finally beginning to hit home in a conscious and frightening way with working-class and middle-class Americans. As I’ve talked to black and white and Hispanic Southerners these past six weeks, Iraq has always been the first subject that has come up–and with a level of anger, frustration and passion that was rarely matched on that stage in Orangeburg tonight, except perhaps when Gravel quite convincingly pronounced himself “frightened” by the wishy-washiness of some of his fellow candidates on the issue. But folks already knew, before these festivities, that their best bet to end the Iraq disaster lies with the Democrats.

They still don’t know–not after tonight–that the Democrats are their best bet to heal the economic fissure between the ever-fattening haves and the vast, anemic mass of the rest of us. Out in the hinterlands, local and state politicians are stirring souls and winning elections by reviving the old spirit of Huey Long and Share Our Wealth. But among the national Democrats, there appears to be scant recognition of the bleeding obvious: People are hurting, and not just those who’ve been unfortunate enough to land in Iraq or have family members there. A full one-eighth of Americans now officially live in poverty, we learned this past week, just as the Dow ding-dinged its way to 13,000. On this issue, among the folks I’ve been talking to, the anger and frustration are mingled with heavy doses of mystification: Doesn’t anybody get what’s happening to us out here?

As usual, Edwards showed flashes of understanding, and offered up some worthy solutions. So did Joe Biden, who was far and away the finest performer of the night because he managed to be both the sharpest-minded and the most identifiably “regular” human being. And in her tepid way, Hillary Clinton brought an encouraging number of her answers back to the day-to-day realities of folks, especially in her clever response to the Wal-Mart “gotcha” question, when she noted that the giant discount labor abuser had, at least at first, done a small positive thing by helping people “stretch a dollar.” This was right in tune with what people on the street think about Wal-Mart. It’s love-hate. It is to her credit that she gets that.

One of the striking things you notice, covering a debate like this, is the vast gulf between what the reporters and pundits see and what the people see. I spent most of the debate in the stifling habitat of a media room with the likes of CNN’s Jeff Greenberg and Candy Crowley. As the first big question about Iraq was lobbed at the Big Three–Clinton, Obama and Edwards–the mediocracy collectively pounded away at their laptops, taking down every word in a veritable symphony of typing. When the same question then went to Kucinich, the man who intrepidly preached against the war in 2004 when the others would not, all hands rested. All typing ceased. The music stopped. Attention wandered. Who cares that this man was–and is–dead-right on the issue, and that he says it stronger, and in a way far more in tune with the bulk of the people, than any of the others? He is not “viable.” He is not big money. He is not worth transcribing.

On the other side of campus, the local folks and students who couldn’t get into the media-choked debate hall assembled in the gymnasium for a “community celebration.” While all reportorial eyes and ears were locked in unison on the “viable” candidates, the loudest cheers among the juiced-up thousands gathered in the gym were mostly for Kucinich and Gravel. This audience had probably not heard of these fellows before the night began. But they had not come to hear Clinton sunnily assure the nation that hedge funds are just fine because “we know how to regulate so nobody gets an unfair advantage.” They had not come to hear Obama’s robotic platitude about “organizing ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” They had come in hopes, high and hot and pressing hopes, of hearing some exceptionally smart and well-informed people speak some truth–finally!–about the world in which they live and struggle.

Maybe next time.

As the festivities wound down, I slipped outside the gym and chatted a while in the warm spring night with an older black gentleman named Pete Henderson. He was turned out nicely in his Sunday finest, a camel-colored suit with a sharp tie, but perched high on his head was a baseball cap that announced: Retiree, Air Force. With impeccable Southern politeness, he first said he thought the evening had gone “very well, very well.” But he had not been bowled over by any of the candidates. “The first thing I wanted to hear was how we’re going to get out of Iraq,” he said. “I understand a lot about these wars. I served in Korea and I served two tours in Vietnam.” Twenty-eight years in the military, in all, before he returned to his coastal home of Georgetown. “To me it’s abominable to see us sending young troops over there to be killed.” He opposed this thing from the start, he says. “From day one. Now, I could understand everybody being upset about 9/11. But why Iraq? There was no truth to the reasons we went there. The first thing I thought was, This is for oil.”

Henderson reached for a cigarette as talk turned toward the domestic. “Our country is so focused on Iraq,” he said. “But every day, I see in this country, people are destitute. It bothers me so much. Destitute, right here.”

Henderson shook his head emphatically–a gesture that as good as said, “What in the world are we thinking in America?” On this night, that question hovered over Orangeburg as sure as the big white moon that glowered though the gauze of clouds in the inky night sky.

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