I have sometimes wondered, usually when otherwise unoccupied and holding a malt beverage, where we came up with the cliché about the gloves coming off. This phrase, of course, is generally applied by lazy political journalists to any situation in which previously friendly—or at least circumspect—opponents finally begin to level personal attacks against one another. It could be a boxing metaphor, a reference to bare-knuckled pugilism, as opposed to the use of the regulation padded handgear that scrambles men's brains more gently and gradually. Or, perhaps the source is the sport of hockey, in which every serious fight is preceded by players dropping those large, unwieldy gloves that protect critical body parts, but lend themselves poorly to fisticuffs. I suppose I could find the answer on the web, but I guess I don't really care all that much after all.
In any event, as I sampled the usual news and politics websites this morning, I wondered how long it would take me to find the first mention of this phrase in connection with last night's Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. I didn't have to wait long; the very first site I visited (CNN.com) began its post-debate analysis by observing that "[t]he gloves came off quickly Monday night…" Perhaps concerned that the campaign would conclude without the full deployment of every available cliché, CNN also observed that the candidates "traded blows" and that "sparks fl[ew]" in this "Democratic slugfest".*
The stable of wannabe sportswriters must be quite robust down at the House that Ted Turner Built in Atlanta. One of the more irritating choices that the network has recently made has been the decision to label some of its election coverage as "Ballot Bowl '08", as though the stakes here involved a trophy and bragging rights rather than the power to bomb cities and send armies to their deaths. If we have yet seen a more blatant admission of a broadcaster's willingness to trivialize politics and elevate drama over substance, I am unaware of it. Yep, friends, in the end it's all just a big game. CNN might as well hire Chris Berman away from ESPN, so he can lend his own tiresome act to the "Most Trusted Name in News":
"Down in South Carolina, Barack of Ages Obama takes on the First Lady of Scold, Hillary Clinton. Obama is hit hard, but he won't go down, rumblin', bumblin', stumblin' toward the goal line. If he wins on Saturday, he…could…go…all…the…way! Meanwhile, the polls show John Edwards falling back-back-back-back-back, and he is gone. Whoever wins the DNC Championship will face either John McCain Mutiny, Mitt Me in St. Louie Romney, or Rudy "Don't Take Your Love to Town" Giuliani in the Supah Ballot Bowl in November."
Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.
As for the debate itself, CNN determined that "the only clear winner in the Democratic slugfest is Republican John McCain". Evidently, a little bickering between candidates in January is somehow supposed to aid the Republican cause in November. It's funny how often this sort of thing is alleged, and how rarely it is empirically demonstrated. Indeed, the last two times we had a non-incumbent presidential election—1988 and 2000—the side with the nastiest primary contest won the presidency. The brutal battle between Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush toughened up the latter and probably helped him defeat Michael Dukakis, who emerged from a much friendlier Democratic contest. Twelve years later, the GOP race between George W. Bush and John McCain set new standards for nastiness, and yet Bush (sort of) won the presidency over Al Gore, whose primary season battle with Bill Bradley lacked fireworks.
One hesitates to generalize from a sample size of two, but I think it makes sense that a candidate who is tested at the beginning of the year will be better prepared for the pummeling he or she will take after Labor Day. (Pummeling! Now they've got me doing it.) As I suggested in an earlier post, one of the problems with John Kerry's 2004 primary campaign may have been that it ended too quickly, before Democratic voters could see how Kerry might actually stand up to a full-bore negative advertising campaign. Had Democrats known how ineffectively Kerry would respond to the Swift Boat Liars later that year, they would almost certainly have reconsidered their choice.
For my money, then, this was the best Democratic debate so far. Personal attacks remain as much a feature of contested campaigns as bumper stickers and lapel buttons. Clinton and Obama didn't say anything about one another that the Republicans won't be saying in nine months. If anything, airing the dirty laundry in January will give it the feel of old news by the time McCain or Romney raises these issues after the conventions. And in case nobody has been paying attention, the gloves, as it were, have been off on the GOP side for weeks.
In one respect, the big winner of the debate was Barack Obama. He simply must prove himself capable of operating not just at the level of ideas, but at the visceral level of personal, take-no-prisoners politics. His shot at Senator Clinton for serving on the WalMart board of directors was a good one, perhaps the best attack he has made to date. Obama still does not seem entirely comfortable with negative campaigning, but at least it's a start. More debates are on the way, and they will become more pointed as the race increasingly turns into a two-person battle (indeed, John Edwards, who otherwise did well last night, has already started to sound a bit like a third wheel).
These are not nice people that the Democrats will be facing in November. To get the first Bush elected, they shamelessly exploited racial tensions and played to the most vulgar stereotypes of African American men as predators. To clear the way for the second Bush, they smeared John McCain through his adopted daughter, and then slandered John Kerry, a genuine war hero, as a coward and traitor. Hillary Clinton, if she is the nominee, can look forward to a rehash of all the greatest scandal-mongering hits of the 1990s, with a few more lies added to the mix. Barack Obama, for his part, can expect to endure an autumn of whispers about his Kenyan father, his mixed-race heritage, and, of course, whether or not he spent time in fundamentalist Islamic schools.
If we must use boxing metaphors, then let's regard Senators Clinton and Obama as sparring partners. One of them will ultimately fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the World against someone who will pull no punches, and will probably hit below the belt. Unless they use this training to hone their technique, whichever Democrat advances will enter the ring unprepared. If they go easy on each other, they could face the same fate as Kid Kerry in the last title bout in 2004. So I say to Hillary and Barack, "A-let's get ready to ruuuuuummmmbbbbllleee!"
I can't decide now whether I need to take a shower or simply type up my application for employment at CNN.
* The CNN website changes their content fairly regularly, and their story on last night's debate has already been altered. Thus, no link.