A Simmering Debate in S.C.

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, in which the candidates embraced one another's records on civil rights and racial issues. The other was a bloodbath in which the same candidates slashed and sliced their way through one another's reputations, voting records and campaign quotes.

In Las Vegas last week Hillary 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. Clinton and Obama's visceral dislike for each other was obvious, while Edwards stayed cordial—but fought for equal time. For the record, Obama threw the first punch about Clinton copying him on tax rebates. "That wasn't the original focus of her plan," he said. "I think recently she has caught up with what I had originally said, which is we've got to get … tax cuts into the pockets of hard-working Americans right away."

That was only a glancing blow compared with the right hook he landed a little later on both Clinton and John Edwards on the issue trade. "It is absolutely true that NAFTA was a mistake," he said. "I know that Hillary … just last year said this was a boon to the economy. I think it has been devastating, because our trade agreements did not have labor standards and environmental standards that would assure that workers in the U.S. were getting a square deal." Then he turned on Edwards for his vote for permanent trade relations with China.

This marks a new phase in Obama's campaign: the steel cage fight that his aides had long scorned. His fellow candidates were only too happy to jump into the cage with him.

Clinton accused Obama of being a lawyer "representing your contributor, [Antoin] Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner-city Chicago." (Chicago businessman Rezko was indicted last fall on federal charges of influence peddling.) Obama said that, as an associate in a local law firm, he performed several hours of legal work in involving Rezko's housing developments. Last weekend Obama returned more than $40,000 in political contributions that had been linked to Rezko. Rezko's attorney has said Rezko is innocent and intends to fight all charges. Edwards accused them both of engaging in "squabbling." Clinton and Edwards both swung at Obama for his votes on credit card interest rates, his scores of "present" votes in the Illinois legislature, and his health-care proposals. "Well, you know, Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you," said Clinton, "because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern."

Obama likes to say that voters need less heat in Washington and more light. If there was any light from Monday's debate it came in a simple contrast between how Clinton and Obama spoke about Republicans. Clinton insisted she was the best candidate to withstand Republican attacks in the general election. Obama insisted he was the best candidate to attract Republicans in the general election.

But that was just a passing moment before they turned to the real dispute over who should lead the family. The old head of the family, Bill Clinton, was not onstage during the two-hour meltdown. When his name popped up, Obama complained that the former president had trashed him about the Reagan comments.

"Well, I'm here," said Hillary Clinton, displacing her husband. "He's not."

"OK," said Obama. "Well, I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

Whoever emerges as the head of the family, at some point in the next several weeks, one thing is clear: they are all going to need a lifetime of therapy.