LAST NIGHT'S DEMOCRATIC debate might be the most useless political exercise of the entire campaign cycle, which is saying something. The normally incisive Tim Russert and Brian Williams spent the opening 40 minutes on a series of inanities so trivial that even the candidates seemed annoyed.
To begin, Williams and Russert asked questions about the racial back-and-forth between the Clinton and Obama campaigns over the last few days. Russert asked Obama if he thought the Bradley Effect was to blame for his loss in New Hampshire. Williams asked Obama about his failure to win the women's vote in the Granite State. The moderators were so caught up in process that Williams actually quoted a Frank Rich column describing Obama's "You're likable enough, Hillary" debate remark and asked Obama to comment on it. Clinton was asked about her comments about Obama's readiness to be president. And just to mix it up, a third moderator occasionally pitched in with emailed questions from Real People. One Real Person asked:
"The policy differences among the remaining candidates is so slight that we appear to be choosing on the basis of personality and life story. That being said, why should I, as a progressive woman, not resent being forced to choose between the first viable female candidate and the first viable African American candidate?"
It's a total triumph of meta over substance. And it got worse. Russert actually asked the Democrats to tell viewers about their greatest weakness and their greatest strength. Unsurprisingly, they all worry that they care too much about ordinary people. When the first break comes, we're moments away from "If you could be any kitchen appliance, what would you be, and why?"
(Obvious hypothetical answers: Obama: A food processor, bringing different ingredients, and people, together. Clinton: A tea kettle with a distinctive whistling voice that appeals to women. Edwards: My father was a mill worker and he didn't have fancy kitchen appliances, Tim.)
The only redeeming moment was Clinton showing a flash of wit when asked about her opponents' backgrounds. She began, "John, as we know, is the son of a mill worker . . ." Zing!
Despite all of this, however, there was one revealing exchange. The debate featured only a single serious question concerning foreign policy, during which the three Democrats tried to out-do one another in their commitment to speedily withdrawing from Iraq. Clinton said that she'll start within 60 days of taking office; Obama said he would have complete withdrawal by 2009; Edwards said that he'd leave no combat troops whatsoever, would conduct no more combat missions, and that "the occupation must end." (When pressed, Edwards allowed that he would keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait, to make excursions into Iraq if need be.)
Two points of interest: First, Clinton has decided to try to come after Obama from the left on Iraq, abandoning previous efforts to position herself as the grownup in the Democratic field--the only one who could be relied upon to act prudentially.
Second, Clinton made the following observation in the course of the Iraq discussion:
The Republican candidates running for the presidency are saying things that are very much in line with president Bush. You know, Senator McCain said the other day that we might have troops there for 100 years, Barack. I mean, they have an entirely different view than we do about what we need to have happening as soon as we get a Democrat elected president.
It's astonishing how casually the Democrats regard the fact that there is an "entirely different view" on Iraq waiting to confront them. It's particularly astonishing that they seem to regard this worldview as something exotic and peripheral to the campaign when it may be a defining issue in the general election: Does America want a president who thinks that victory in Iraq is possible and worth pursuing, or a president who is committed to defeat at any cost? In the Manchester debate Clinton refused to acknowledge that the surge had brought any meaningful progress to Iraq. Obama acknowledged some progress, but dismissed it as unimportant.
The Democrats act as though victory in Iraq isn't even open for debate in the next election. It'll be interesting to see whether or not they're right.
Jonathan V. Last is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.