Des Moines, Iowa — It’s a testament to the high mindedness of the Des Moines Register, sponsor of the Democratic debate here Thursday, that at no time during the debate did anyone on the stage talk about what everyone was talking about behind the stage. In front of the audience, Carolyn Washburn, the paper’s schoolmarmish editor and debate moderator, guided the candidates through questions about the deficit, trade, and education. Meanwhile, backstage, everybody was talking about war between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
A day earlier, William Shaheen, co-chairman of Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign, had gone negative on Obama in a pretty spectacular way, saying that, should Obama become the party’s nominee, Republican dirty tricksters would have a field day with his acknowledged youthful drug use. “It’ll be: ‘When was the last time?’” Shaheen told the Washington Post. “Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’ There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It’s hard to overcome.” Better to just play it safe, Shaheen implied, and nominate Sen. Clinton.
In Democratic circles, that’s probably worse than suggesting that Mormons believe Jesus and the devil are brothers. For a white candidate to suggest that a black candidate was probably dealing on the street — well, that was beyond the pale, even in the smashmouth world of the Clinton political machine. So Thursday morning, after Clinton and Obama had both rushed from the Capitol to Reagan National Airport following a Senate vote, when both were set to board the private jets that would take them to Des Moines, Clinton apologized to Obama.
“She suggested that she didn’t know that Mr. Shaheen was going to do what he did, and that she was sorry about it,” David Axelrod, Obama’s closest adviser, told a crush of reporters after the debate. “He [Obama] accepted that.”
Anything else? Well, the conversation went on for about ten minutes. “I think there was a good exchange of views on both sides,” Axelrod added.
“That sounds like the Palestinians and the Israelis,” said one journalist.
“Was he a little heated?” asked someone else.
“No, I don’t think he was heated at all,” Axelrod answered.
Maybe, maybe not. Despite Sen. Clinton’s apology, Team Barack sounded somewhat resentful about the whole thing. Again and again, they pointed reporters to Sen. Clinton’s recent statement that, after being the target of many attacks herself, she was going to go on the offensive against her opponents. “Now the fun part starts,” she said, clearly relishing the idea of being on the attack.
“[Obama] made it clear that it’s important that campaigns send a message from the top down that negative campaigning isn’t the fun part of the process,” Axelrod continued. “It isn’t something to be celebrated and embraced. And if you send that signal, then you’ll have fewer of these kinds of instances.”