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.”
Not far away, Mark Penn, a top Clinton adviser, was denying that any such signal was sent. “I think that’s not at all the message [Clinton] was sending,” Penn told another crush of reporters. “She was very clear about what happened with Shaheen, that it was not acceptable, that it was inappropriate. She apologized. Shaheen’s remarks were unauthorized, we had no knowledge of them whatsoever.”
A little later in the day, word came that Shaheen had resigned his position with the Clinton campaign. At that point, there wasn’t much left to say. Just to be clear, Axelrod was forced to explain that Obama had used drugs as described in his book Dreams from My Father but had stopped by his early 20s and never dealt drugs or gave them away. Campaigns are never happy talking about that kind of stuff, and Axelrod’s words and demeanor left the impression that this episode isn’t over, that the Clinton team had crossed a line that Obama will not forget.
Beyond the question of Obama’s youth, the only other thing that attracted serious attention in the post-debate debate was the issue of change. Early in the race, the contest between Clinton and Obama took the form of an argument between experience vs. change. For a long time, experience was winning. Now, with Obama rising in the polls, having overtaken Clinton in Iowa, it’s pretty much all change. And so Clinton, the former Experience Candidate, is now the Change Candidate. And onstage at the debate, she attempted to sell herself as the only real Change Candidate.
“Everybody on this stage has an idea about how to get change,” she said. “Some believe you get change by demanding it, some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change.”
There were so few confrontational moments in the debate that that qualified as a major attack, and afterwards representatives for both Obama and John Edwards were irritated with it. The Obama camp felt that the “hoping for it” line was a slap at them, while the Edwards camp felt like the “demanding it” line was a slap at them. For his part, Penn maintained that she wasn’t slapping anybody — a contention that no one believed.
Jonathan Prince, a spokesman for Edwards, gave an impassioned defense of the historical necessity of demanding change. Axelrod said Obama was about much more than just hope. But Penn wondered why anybody was upset. “I think some candidates are saying, look, we need change,” he explained. “But beyond those demands for change, you don’t really see how they would do it. Then I think you see others saying there’s not a left or right, or a Democrat or a Republican — really saying that they hope for change. And I think she’s saying, look, you have to understand that in order to get real change for real people, you’ve got to have the experience, you’ve got to have the know-how, that change is as much perspiration as anything else. And that if voters want change, she really is the one to bring it.”
After a few minutes of that — and there were many minutes of that — any observer who wasn’t deeply in the tank for one candidate or another began to wonder: What in the world are they talking about? What is all this change? Obama will bring change, his supporters say. What kind of change? Well, real change. Real change? That’s right — change we can believe in. You understand?
Iowa television is saturated with political commercials these days. One particularly heavily-played ad is by second-tier candidate Sen. Joseph Biden, who says “When this campaign is over, political slogans like experience and change will mean absolutely nothing.” It’s not a bad ad, but in these last three weeks before the caucuses, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s already right.