PHILADELPHIA -- Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton squared off last night in a debate to help Democrats choose their party's nominee, but the big winner wasn't either Democrat. It was Republican John McCain.
Both Clinton and Obama were rattled as ABC moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos grilled them on a number of issues that have not been brought into focus before.
Clinton came across as craven and dishonest, while the normally eloquent Obama buckled under tough questioning about his relationships with former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. When the debate moved to policy, both candidates contradicted themselves repeatedly and revealed the hollowness of their liberal positions.
Gibson reminded Obama that more than a year ago he asked Wright not to attend the announcement of his candidacy, reportedly telling his long-time pastor, "You can get kind of rough in sermons. So, what we've decided is that it's best for you not to be out there in public." Gibson then asked Obama why, knowing Wright was "rough in sermons," it took him more than a year to distance himself from the remarks.
Obama responded unconvincingly, saying that even though he had a close relationship with Wright that spanned decades, it wasn't until he read an article in Rolling Stone that he found out that the reverend had delivered inflammatory sermons, and that it wasn't until he saw YouTube clips that he was aware of Wright's even more explosive comments.
But in last month's highly touted race speech, Obama said: "Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes."
So which is it?
Meanwhile, Obama declared that because Wright served as a Marine, "I believe that he loves this country." I'd wager that most Americans who listened to Wright shout, "God damn America" would come to a different conclusion.
When Obama was asked a question about his relationship with domestic terrorist Ayers, he made the outlandish parallel to his friendship with conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, who is a fierce opponent of abortion.
And Obama also had a telling response when asked about his uneasiness about wearing an American flag lapel pin.
"This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with and, once again, distracts us from what should be my job when I'm commander in chief, which is going to be figuring out how we get our troops out of Iraq and how we actually make our economy better for the American people," Obama said.
It was quite indicative of how he views his job as commander in chief that he describes it only in terms of leaving Iraq rather than protecting America. Even if somebody believes that withdrawing from Iraq is a necessary precondition to securing our nation, it is certainly a bizarre way to define the role of leading the armed forces of the largest military of the world.
Clinton didn't fare any better when, by video, a voter asked about her fantastical recreation of her visit to Bosnia in 1996.
"I can tell you that I may be a lot of things. But I'm not dumb," Clinton said. "On a couple of occasions in the last weeks, I just said some things that weren't in keeping with what I knew to be the case and what I had written about in my book."
Well there's a word for when intelligent people say things that they know not to be true. It's called: lying. I'm surprised she never learned this from her grandfather who worked in the lace mills in Scranton.
THE CANDIDATES' PERFORMANCES did not improve once the subject moved on to policy.
Clinton, at first, committed to withdrawing one or two brigades a month from Iraq upon taking office, no matter the realities on the ground. But then she said she would, upon taking office, ask her security advisers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense to draw up plans to begin a pullout within 60 days. "I will make it very clear that we will do so in a responsible and careful manner because, obviously, withdrawing troops and equipment, is dangerous."
But what if her advisers tell her that withdrawing one or two brigades a month isn't responsible, would she override them?
"No one can predict what will happen," Clinton said. "There are many different scenarios."
But what if one of these unpredictable scenarios occurs? Will she still withdraw troops at the same pace? And who's on first?
Obama, meanwhile, gave a more coherent response to this question, that the president sets the mission, which the military commanders then follow. But when it came to Iran, the golden-tongued Obama sounded like Elmer Fudd.
When asked by Stephanopoulos whether America should treat an Iranian attack on Israel as an attack on the United States, Obama dodged the question with boilerplate about the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, before eventually arriving at, "that would be an act of aggression that we would -- that I would consider an attack that is unacceptable. And the United States would take appropriate action."
Yeah Barack, that ought to show them!
On domestic policy, both candidates tried to slither their way out of past anti-gun rights positions, and explain their myriad plans to raise taxes.
Asked why he would consider nearly doubling capital gains taxes even though historically revenue has gone up from lowering the rates, Obama got flustered.
"Well, that might happen, or it might not," Obama said. "It depends on what's happening on Wall Street and how business is going." He then went off on a tangent about President Bush and McCain being inattentive to the housing crisis.
Clinton also said she would consider raising the capital gains tax, only not by as much as Obama.
And then Obama, despite minutes earlier saying he wouldn't raise taxes on individuals earning less than $200,000, said he would consider raising the cap on payroll taxes, which would mean a tax hike for anybody earning more than $97,000.
It may very well be that with an unpopular incumbent president in office, a controversial war, and an uncertain economy, the deck is just too stacked against Republicans this election year for them to retake the White House. And McCain no doubt has his own weaknesses as a candidate. But the Democrats sure did look beatable Wednesday night.
Philip Klein is a reporter for the The American Spectator.
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