Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) appeared Wednesday in Philadelphia for a rare primetime televised debate on ABC.
It turned into a bitter affair just days before the Pennsylvania primary Tuesday.
Viewers might not have noticed any switch in primetime programming, given the new trend in presidential debates that favors a "reality TV" approach over addressing serious issues. Nowadays, moderators carefully dig up the worst possible dirt on candidates they can, hoping to shock them into making a mistake. Of course, this conveniently opens the door for opponents to pile on, too.
Obama got the worst of the mudslinging from the moderators Wednesday night. Of course, it started with his recent comments about how he thinks rural Pennsylvanians are "bitter" and "cling" to guns, God and anti-immigrant sentiment. Obama admitted: "Not the first time I've mangled a statement." He went on to explain that he meant to say people are frustrated and become attached to divisive political issues.
Clinton seized the opportunity to accuse Obama of fundamentally misunderstanding the role religion plays in the average person's life, noting that people don't turn to God when frustrated with politics in Washington.
Obama also faced difficult questions about two of his associates, both of whom have made controversial statements about America: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's pastor, and
, a former member of the Weather Underground. Excerpts of videos of Wright's sermons shocked many several weeks ago. They included statements like "God Damn America" and those that blame America for its "own terrorism" after 9/11. Obama recovered some by denouncing the hateful language and lauding his church's efforts to help its community.
William Ayers remains mostly an unknown name in the campaign. Few know that Obama attended an election event in his house in the 1990s and that the two are neighbors in Chicago. Ayers was a member of a radical group in the 1960s that tried to blow up the Pentagon in retaliation for the Vietnam War. His name resurfaced on Sept. 11, 2001.
The New York Times
published an interview about his book
Fugitive Wars: A Memoir
, where he inauspiciously commented in reference to opposition of the war: "I don't regret setting bombs, I feel we didn't do enough."
Clinton hammered both men for similar reasons. She said New Yorkers were offended by the insensitivity to 9/11. However, Obama deflected the Ayers assault, noting that President Bill Clinton had pardoned two of Ayers' comrades in the Weather Underground.
Obama's patriotism came into question, as well. It began with his pastor and continued when an audience member asked whether he believed in the American flag. He has spoken publicly about his decision not to wear a flag pin on his lapel. The questions seemed to catch him off guard, although he countered that he has "confidence" that Americans will see these attacks as petty politics as usual meant to divide us. So far, Democrats have ignored the issue.
Clinton again caught flak for lying about coming under sniper fire while traveling to Bosnia in 1996. An audience member said Clinton had lost his vote because of dishonesty and wondered how she planned to regain his trust. She apologized for the error. She then quickly pointed out how important her extensive world travel is as a candidate.
Obama mentioned more Clinton highlights from the 1990s to offset some of the attacks accusing him of bitterness. He mentioned her famous cookie comment from the 1992 election. Clinton said: "I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas." At the time, it denigrated the effort of stay-at-home moms and was seen as, yes, elitist.
Eventually the moderators tired of trashing the candidates and turned to the issues. The war in Iraq was mostly ignored in favor of discussing the economy, which tied in nicely to
Sen. McCain's (R., Ariz.) recent comments
McCain has said that the Democrats plan to raise everyone's taxes, not just the rich. The Democrats flatly denied this. In fact, Clinton and Obama both pledged big tax cuts for the middle class but didn't make the same guarantee for the wealthy. They plan to pay for social programs by repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
Clinton outshone Obama on the tax issue. She expressed reticence over tax hikes and managed to put a nice spin on taxes by framing them as a down payment on the future. She touted her plans to invest in infrastructure and green industries, which will lead to jobs and economic prosperity.
Both candidates took fire trying to explain their position on the Second Amendment. How does one support guns and gun control at the same time? They explained that different municipalities and states face different problems. They argued that cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, which struggle with illegal guns in the hands of criminals, need gun control to protect citizens. Law-abiding gun enthusiasts, on the other hand, often own guns to enjoy hunting in rural areas or have family tradition of owning guns. But gun owners might wonder what defines law-abiding.
It was an ugly debate. The early and numerous attacks on Obama got him off his game and handed an easy win to Clinton.