On Monday the Democratic presidential contenders gathered in South Carolina for a debate in which questions were submitted to YouTube by ordinary citizens and selected by CNN. The format lent itself to a certain level of vacuity and silliness, but it also lead to some revealing moments. One of those was when a questioner asked whether a candidate would “be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”
Barack Obama didn’t hesitate: “I would.” He went on to criticize the Bush administration for discounting the importance of diplomacy with enemies. When the question was thrown to Hillary Clinton, she took a more cautious route:
Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration. And I will purse very vigorous diplomacy. And I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we’re not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.
This is what might be called a separating-the-men-from-the-boys moment, except that the man happens to be a woman. That moment in the debate led, over the next few days, to the first gloves-off exchange that Clinton and Obama have had.
Hillary charged on Wednesday that Obama’s pledge was “irresponsible and frankly naive.” She’s right, and Obama’s aides tacitly admitted as much when, after the debate, they began walking back his promise of first-year meetings with the world’s rogue’s gallery. “Though Obama’s answer was unequivocal, Obama aides said after the debate that he never meant to suggest that he would definitely personally meet with dictators such as Kim Jong Il and Fidel Castro without first initiating in lower-level diplomacy,” reported ABC on Tuesday. In what might be seen as an act of desperation, Obama punched back yesterday by accusing Hillary of being “Bush-Cheney lite.”
Who wins this exchange? On the merits, it’s Clinton by a mile. Politically speaking, it’s not so obvious; winning a Democratic primary requires winning votes from people who are, well, irresponsible and frankly naive. Perhaps Clinton would get more mileage by emphasizing the general election consequences of Obama’s answer in the debate. Democratic voters who have no problem with the policy implications of the President doing a photo op with Fidel Castro may still have a problem with the political implications of a promise that ensures electoral defeat in Florida.
Another revealing moment from the debate: Joe Biden, who’s mouth always runs faster than his brain, insulting a questioner, and, implicitly, gun owners everywhere.
Jared Townsend had a cleverly-done video-question in which he asked the candidates to “tell me your position on gun control, as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe.” The twist: Townsend then pulled on-screen his Bushmaster AR-15 rifle. “This is my baby, purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views.”
Bill Richardson gave a not-bad answer emphasizing background checks. But when Anderson Cooper threw the question to Biden, he tut-tutted: “I’ll tell you what, if that is his baby, he needs help.” After the applause, Biden kept it up: “I think he just made an admission against self-interest. I don’t know that he is mentally qualified to own that gun. I’m being serious.”
Townsend, of course, meant “baby” in the sense that one would call his sports-car his baby. How crazy! “I am the guy who originally wrote the assault weapons ban,” Biden went on to brag, oblivious to the thrust of Townsend’s question: That ridiculous law applied arbitrary cosmetic criteria meant, essentially, to target scary-looking guns. That Townsend’s rifle was legal under that ban illustrates that the law didn’t even achieve its inane goal; the Bushmaster AR-15 is styled after a family of automatic weapons that includes the M16 favored by the US military.
After Townsend, in an interview with Reason, mentioned that he’d invited Biden to discuss gun control with him, Biden told The Politico that he’d be glad to talk to Townsend and even go hunting with him, but that the Bushmaster was just too frightening to countenance. “All I have is a 20-gauge and a 10-gauge shotgun. It won’t match his automatic weapon,” Biden said.
Townsend’s Bushmaster, though, isn’t an automatic weapon; it’s a semiautomatic (one shot per trigger-pull). If Biden really owns a 10-gauge shotgun — a type of gun that very few hunters use, in part because the outsized recoil makes it hard to control — he’s packing a lot more firepower than Townsend. But hey, why should Biden bother to learn anything about guns before he takes on the job of regulating them? There are so many gun enthusiasts out there, after all, and by definition, according to Biden’s diagnosis, they’re all mentally ill.
What’s going on in Fred Thompson’s undeclared campaign? This week Thomas J. Collamore, Thompson’s would-be campaign manager, was moved to an “advisory” roll while strategist Randy Enright and former Sen. Spencer Abraham took the helm as political director and chairman, respectively. The official explanation: Collamore did a good job putting the testing-the-waters organization together, but wasn’t considered up to the task of actually running the campaign.
But then J.T. Mastranadi, hired only a couple weeks ago as the non-campaign’s research director, resigned the day after the shake-up at the top was announced. According to Marc Ambinder, a friend of Mastranadi’s said that Mastranadi “was ‘fed up’ with the ‘lack of structure’ and was unclear about his role in the coming campaign.”
Just today, Tom Frechette, who had effectively been serving as Collamore’s deputy, also resigned. Frechette and Collamore are both rumored to have been displeased by the influence of Thompson’s wife, Jeri.
Does all this signal trouble? Who knows. But until Thompson stops dawdling and gets in the race (or, alternatively, decides he’s not running after all), it’s going to be hard not to think that all these aides abandoning ship indicate that his potential candidacy is sinking before it’s even set sail.
John Tabin is a columnist for Brainwash.