Rise of the jackal pack

While channel surfing for the latest in the series of blah-blah Democratic presidential debates the other night, I came upon what was obviously an old rerun on Animal Planet and could not tear myself away from the bizarre sight: I witnessed two jackals going after each other, clawing and snapping, while an almost unseen Carolina grouse harmlessly flapped its wings.

Soon I lost all interest in watching anything presidential. Which was just as well. Because that way I was not disappointed when I belatedly discovered that this scene of unruly wildlife actually was a debate involving Democratic presidential candidates, albeit a most un-presidential debate, telecast on CNN from Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Monday, the holiday celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the jackals du jour, have managed to lower their standards and themselves to a level befitting two Chicago pols campaigning for alderman on claims that each can fill more potholes than the other — and accusations that one is dishonest, deceitful and (this is the dirtiest of all) a closet Reaganite. John Edwards, who now is reduced to fighting just for face time in every debate, wound up grousing about the records of both of his opponents. His best moments came when he criticized his opponents for their attacks on each other.

The snapping and clawing actually began well before the debate, as both Sen. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have launched increasingly strident attacks on Obama for being inconsistent in his opposition to the Iraq war and for saying nice things about Ronald Reagan. Stridency has replaced accuracy as the standard of choice for both Clintons, as they have distorted Obama’s words, context and meaning to score political points.

In the debate, Clinton charged: “The facts are that he has said in the last week that he really liked the ideas of the Republicans over the last 10 to 15 years, and we can give you the exact quote. Now, I personally think they had ideas, but they were bad ideas. They were bad ideas for America.”

“That simply is not true,” Obama said. Clinton snapped back: “You talked about admiring Ronald Reagan and you talked about the ideas.”

“That is not true,” Obama replied. “…The irony of this is that you provided much more fulsome praise of Ronald Reagan in a book by Tom Brokaw that’s being published right now, as did Bill Clinton in the past. So these are the kinds of political games that we are accustomed to.”

Here are the facts: Clinton distorted Obama’s remarks about Reagan in an interview last week with the Reno Gazette-Journal. Obama spoke positively about Reagan but never said he admired him; he spoke of the Republicans as “the party of ideas,” but never said he liked those ideas. Obama’s exact words:

“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. He tapped into what people were already feeling, which is, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want, you know, a return to that sense of dynamism and, you know, entrepreneurship that had been missing.”

In Brokaw’s book, “Boom!,” Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying of Reagan: “He could call the Soviet Union the Evil Empire and then negotiate arms-control agreements. He played the balance and the music beautifully.”

Actually, of course, both were right in noting Reagan’s contribution — and the Democrats need to have the political confidence and maturity to simply say so. But in their debate, every policy point seemed to become a point of attack.

As when Obama emphasized his insight into the needs of lower-income people: “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.”

And when Clinton said: “Senator Obama, it is very difficult having a straight-up debate with you, because you never take responsibility for any vote, and that has been a pattern.”

The audience booed her for that. But somewhere in television land, she no doubt won herself one famous fan. Karl Rove must have been clapping and swapping high-fives with his pals. After all, the Democratic presidential front-runners were doing his dirty work for him.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)