So here I am watching Real World: Iowa... oh wait, it's just another multiple candidate debate.
I know I said a while back that I wasn't finding these debates useful... then came YouTube/CNN, and then the Logo debate. And now I find that watching the debates, especially among Democrats, has started to become compelling.
To be fair, too, this started happening during Yearly Kos, when they had the candidate forum there; for all my griping about the usefulness of Kos, it's true that because of the need to win that particular audience over, I think, Edwards and Obama made tactical decisions about taking the gloves off. Since then, it's been a pretty steady of stream of everyone trying to find "key differences" to highlight.
And so, today's ABC debate is a lot of, well, realness, and cutting through some pretty tired rhetoric to get to some tougher stances. It's a welcome change.
What a shame then that most of this is watching them try to split hairs on things they mostly agree on.
Perhaps the most welcome thing is that none of these folks wilt in the face of criticism. If there's one thing that Democrats seem most freaked about going into this election, it's the kind of thing I see around here in Red Sox fans, a belief that even when things seem to be going well, that the people we believe in will run into a juggernaut (now there's a metaphor: the Yankees as Republicans, or vice-versa) of an unstoppable force that will wreck us. Democrats have gotten their hopes up too many times (though frankly, I'd say with Mondale, Kerry and Dukakis, much of it was hope for the best but know that disaster loomed) to believe that winning in 2008 will be easy.
But these guys are good, and we should face that. It's not just that Clinton, Obama and Edwards come off well in these things, it's that the bench is deep enough that experienced voices like Dodd and Biden (and even, God bless him, Kucinich) look perfectly serious and reasonable too. And when they question and challenge each other, it's a reminder of what Democrats bring to the table that's good: a consistent feeling that if we refine an idea, we can make it even better.
That's why the "lobbyist money" question is in one sense useful, and in another somewhat pointless; as several people said, making hairsplitting distinctions about the "good money" you take vs. the "bad money" you take with these candidates misses the point that there's a larger money problem out here, that's hard to solve and involves asking harder questions than, say, Edwards is offering up (partly because, if we broaden this money discussion, he'll be in hot water). But Clinton's not going to get off easy continuing to dodge the idea that she's more favored by business interests than others on the stage. She's getting better - much better, really - about actually expressing opinions; but the opinions she's expressing are not always what lefty types want to hear: that the world is complicated, that we have to make compromises, that we can't just expect universal healthcare tomorrow, or to leave Iraq the next day.
What's remarkable, at least to me, is that she's being echoed by a number of others (Dodd, for instance was especially forceful on it). That candor is refreshing, and it suggests a willingness to do more than just say what liberal audiences want to hear - and it's putting Obama out in an interesting, but somewhat lonely place, since he's decided to stick to the "outsider" card that is his best chance. But he's been kind of soundly hit from multiple sides with the notions that experience matters, and that you can't just expect to come in and automatically get your way (which is the "I won't be run by special interest" flip - realizing that you will need to deal with multiple interests and compromise is key).
All of that said, the one that impresses me least is Bill Richardson. I was going to write this in the middle of last week, but really... remind me why he's running? Because I don't see it. He's consistently weak, he admits he often misspeaks... and he's just not getting it done (though my Mom points out that he's got an unforced naturalness that's a bit refreshing).
But mostly, I think today's debate was a wake up call to start paying attention to what these folks are saying. This campaign is - finally - becoming real, and about something. More than an easy answer about which of these people to support, all I'vee wanted is a campaign that would make me feel that my choice was based on something real... and not who I thought would be fun to have on The Real World. And we're almost there.