Wolffe: Turning Up the Heat

NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe on tonight's heated Democratic debate:

Family therapists might want to study the two Democratic get-togethers over the last week. Both were nominally about race in America, and  both involved the same three candidates. One became known as the Kumbaya conversation, where the candidates embraced one another's records on civil rights and racial issues. The other was a bloodbath, where the same candidates slashed and sliced their way through each other's reputation, voting record and campaign quotes.

In Las Vegas last week, Clinton insisted that Democrats needed to hug each other more and start swinging at the real enemy. "We are so  different from the Republicans on all of these issues, in every way that affects the future of the people that we care so much about," she 
said. "So I think that it's appropriate on Dr King's birthday, his actual birthday, to recognize that all of us are here as the result of  what he did, all of the sacrifice, including giving his life, along with so many of the other icons that we honor."

"We're all family in the Democratic Party," Hillary Clinton said in the cozy Las Vegas get-together. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., the family they most resembled was the Sopranos.

In Monday's debate, Clinton still lambasted Republicans—but implied that some of her colleagues might admire them.  "The facts are that [Obama] has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years," she said, referring to Obama's previous comments about the Reagan era. "Now, I personally think they had ideas, but they were bad ideas."

After the two of them squabbled for several minutes—including over who had the right to talk—Obama tried to quash the notion that he was not a real member of the family. "What I said was that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to," he said. "Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart."

Family disputes are never pretty, but any good psychologist would recognize the three classic defense mechanisms on display: denial, repression and suppression.

At last week's debate, and for most of the last year, the top three Democrats suppressed their natural competitive feelings for the greater family good. Perhaps at times they even repressed the resentment that simmered among them—the nasty feeling that the others were standing in the way of their rightful position as the presidential nominee. Of course, they may have simply been in denial, refusing to admit their obvious afflictions as ambitious politicians.

It was compelling to watch all those psychological problems burst into the open on Monday night, just days before the South Carolina primary.

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