I don't think last night's debate was necessarily the Waterloo for Barack Obama that his political enemies hope for, but it was a hell of a tumble nonetheless. The normally silver-tongued Senator stumbled in his worst debate performance of the campaign, helped along with a few shoves from Hillary Clinton and a pair of moderators clearly committed to smacking down the front runner. I'm not sure what was more surprising: his seeming surprise at the series of tough and personal questions - the kind Hillary has come to expect in every debate - or his failure to counter-attack against Clinton.
It may be that Obama is wearing down against the chipper happy warrior from New York, and the moderately vicious shin-kicking campaign that Clinton is tossing his way, but I hope not - I really do. This is nothing compared to a fall campaign between the two major parties - and it's really trivial when compared to what an actual president has to face once in office. Heck, John Kerry was much rougher on Howard Dean. The gifted Senator is still the candidate most likely to gain the nomination, and he may need some extended boot camp before the fall. His supporters should never forget that the national media likes Obama, but it loves John McCain. And if the likes of Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos can go baseline on you, your game needs some work.
There's another bad sign as well. Among the online progressive groundswell for Obama there seems to be a growing clamor for sharply narrowing what it means to be a Democrat. The dominant theme seems to be some version of "Obama's Democratic opponents can longer be called Democrats - because they oppose Obama." Clinton, in particular, comes in for this party-scrubbing routine. Here's Markos Moulitsas, capo di tutti capi of all things blogworthy on the left, after last night's dilly in Philly:
In one of the threads last night, commenter theran made a good observation:
At some point the concept of "Republicans will do X" has turned into a license for Hillary to do all the same things. It's bizarre, but I don't really consider her a Dem any more.
Now, I tend to enjoy following these debates by watching the chatter on DailyKos or The Field or TalkLeft, just to see how other Democratic ears hear what's going down on the stage. Cutting across the grain somewhat, I particularly value hanging out with those who don't agree with my choice and very occasionally trying to spark a little back and forth. So I'm in Obama territory, among what usually is considered to be some pretty smart and progressive analysts and writers. Sure, the commenters can work up a head of wild partisan steam; last night on dKos, Senator Clinton was referred to as "a vile succubus," "a vile excuse for a human being," "a complete scumbag," "that monster," and multiple versions of liar, some with gender-specific modifiers - and that was just one thread.
In some ways, that kind of stuff is predictable - like drunks on the train late on Friday night. As is the instinct to blame the talking heads asking the tough (and inane) questions. When Clinton took the first real debate beating of this cycle back in October, I got pretty worked up myself, as some readers may recall: "I can't remember a debate where the front-runner was literally the topic, where there was a silent agreement among eight men to go after one person with such a single-mindedness." Turns out I was overly optimistic about these things - and I saw that debate as singularly focused on taking down my candidate, who was the front runner at the time. Live and learn.
But in the some of the high emotion of this long campaign, I have noticed on the part of Obama supporters a disturbing notion that Hillary Clinton and her followers shouldn't be considered real Democrats - that the Clinton campaign is somehow working a wild, long-range bank shot that includes taking Obama down now, living through four years of McCain, and then challenging the incumbent in 2012. In reality, she's playing out the string in aggressive fashion, trailing decidedly by not hopelessly, and doing her best to win the nomination and reward her supporters now.
Chris Bowers would never suggest Clinton isn't a core Democrat, and even notes that Obama has also used tactics reminiscent of Republicans in this campaign, but he does suggest that perhaps a true liberal governing majority is at hand, framing it as an end to "liberal elitism" because liberal and Democrat will be almost synonymous. I don't think so - I think a lot people read into the Obama phenomenon that the "map is changing" in 2008, but my guess is that kind of fundamental change is a ways off. Chris writes: "If you change which voters Democrats believe they must attract in order to win elections, you change the Democratic Party irrevocably." I think of lot of Obama backers believe this, and to some degree, it motivates their support for his campaign over the more traditional and coalition-minded Clinton campaign.
And some of that thinking manifests itself in shouts of "real Democrat" and the like. But in my view, suggesting that only Barack Obama and his backers are the "real Democrats," and that the party would best be served by the leave-taking of Clinton and her base, is so much whistling past the graveyard. If she does, you become a third party overnight. If the electoral map shows you anything, it shows in hues of blues and red and purple the continued need for a Democratic coalition based on economic common cause.
I may be more liberal than much of the pro-Hillary crowd in the Democratic Party, and yeah, I spend much of my time with the so-called "creative class," but I know that the only way to advance the cause of more progressive policy in the United States is through a big-tent party.
As the well-named Big Tent Democrat asks in a post questioning Markos: "I wonder who the real Dems are. The ones who say they will unify the Party or the ones intent on destroying Hillary Clinton?"
UPDATE: BTD (an Obama supporter, I might note) adds an insightful kicker: "In a way, there is a certain clarity that is being reached in the Obama blogworld - they want the Clinton part of the Democratic Party and the Clinton legacy demolished and destroyed. I personally think that leads to political suicide for the Democratic Party. But the Unity Schtick does not appear to extend to fellow Dems from the Obama blogs. Their hatred of Bill and Hillary Clinton has become more important to them than Obama's chances of winning in November."
UPDATE II: Anglachel has an eloquent post on the Democratic purge that some in the progressive blogosphere would like to see: "What the hell is up with my party? Disenfranchising voters to throw an election? Declaring vast swaths of party loyalists to be racists? Deriding party stalwarts as "Republican-lite"? Dismissing the economic successes of a previous Democratic administration? Just why are the self-described progressives so frantic to remove Bill Clinton from the company of Democratic presidents?"
UPDATE III: Jerome Armstrong calls out the "tiny tent democrats" and notes: "This, in the context of a discussion about how Clinton is no longer considered a Democrat by many Obama supporters, because she dares to wage a hard-nosed campaign against Obama. The irony being that Clinton leads among Democratic voters in this nomination battle." Also, dig Batman's chest over at Shakesville. See Riverdaughter and Pamela Leavey.