Kodak moment

Almost three days late, but what the heck.

It was with a great sense of relief that I watched, on CNN, the Clinton-Obama debate at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles last Thursday (Friday, Manila time). I happen to be one of those who think that George W. Bush’s calamitous presidency means that the Republicans lose their turn at the White House — on the fundamental principle that democracy allows its citizens to “throw the rascals out.”

The contentious contest for South Carolina caused a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, because it seemed that the strong campaigns both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were running could fatally divide the Democratic party.

But in LA, both Hillary and Barack pulled back from the brink. In part, that must have been because the 24 primaries on Super Tuesday constitute what is effectively a national election, and the negativity of retail politics does not travel well. But in part, Barack and Hillary were on their best behavior because they must have sensed, in the middle of their South Carolina dogfight, that they had lost sight of the prize.

Just in time too.

The New York Times has a wonderful interactive graphic that surely redefines what graphic means: it has a video of the debate, with the transcript running parallel.

CNN has an overview of the debate, with sharp quotes from its political analyst Bill Schneider. (Question: Isn’t the practice of quoting one of your own journalists as a source rather incestuous?)

The second paragraph of the story sums it up neatly:

The exchange was in sharp contrast to previous debates because of the absence of political sniping, yet was one of the most substantive policy discussions yet in the race for the nomination.

About midway through the wrap-up, the debate’s unusual tone was described in more detail.

Thursday’s debate differed from the last time the two took to a stage together — at a contentious January 21 debate in South Carolina in which the front-runners peppered each other with sharp attacks.

In contrast, on Thursday the two smiled, laughed at each other’s jokes and repeatedly complimented the other when they agreed.

I don’t read Bob Herbert much, but the New York Times columnist wrote a post-debate analysis that reflected something that had occurred to me.

Early on, after cheering the “grown-ups” who had shown up at the debate, Herbert quotes Tom Paine’s biographer:

In his biography of Tom Paine, John Keane referred to a pamphlet that Paine had written near the end of his life and said:

“Paine here touched on a quintessential feature of modern republican democracy: it is superior to all other types of government not because it guarantees consensus or even ‘good’ decisions, but because it enables citizens to reconsider their judgments about the quality and unintended consequences of those decisions.

“Republican democracies enable citizens to think twice and to say no, even to policies to which they once consented.”

The same thought is echoed at the end of the column, when Herbert references a (more elegant) quote from James Madison:

For all its flaws, the system forged in the 18th century is working remarkably well in the 21st. James Madison may never have heard of CNN or Google, but the people who walked through a cold rain to vote in South Carolina, and those who trudged through the snow in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the millions who will vote on Super Tuesday can still hear him:

“If there be a principle that ought not to be questioned within the United States, it is that every man has a right to abolish an old government and establish a new one.”

In other words, it is the citizen’s right to throw the rascals out!

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