There are empty seats at some of Barack Obama's meetings now. His media coverage isn't as breathless as it used to be. His poll numbers have been static, with the important exception of Iowa, where he is creeping upward. His performances have been static too, nourishing but unexciting. He has been more herbivore than carnivore in debates. All of which occasioned that most banal of modern journalistic ceremonies in the days leading up to the Oct. 30 Democratic debate: a fevered, unsolicited-advice orgy. None of the advice was substantive, of course. It was all about tactics. He had to attack Hillary Clinton. He had to make his move or lose which, given the tendency of Iowa and New Hampshire voters to make last-minute decisions, wasn't remotely true. Even his consultants got into the act, requesting an interview with the New York Times, in which Obama announced pathetically that he was going to be more specific in his criticisms of the front-runner.
And so, there he was onstage next to Clinton the night before Halloween and not exactly dressed as an assassin. He took his shots, judiciously and more comfortably as the evening wore on. But Obama wasn't nearly as avid or effective as John Edwards, whose soft Southern accent can camouflage an awful lot of aggression. For most of the debate, Clinton was able to deflect the attacks, mostly by professing her fierce and limitless desire to reverse the depredations of the Bush Administration. But just when it was beginning to seem that her evasions were more potent than her opponents' assaults, she stumbled badly, perhaps on the question of granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. She made the argument for it, then denied she favored it. "Unless I missed something," Edwards said as he nailed the coffin, "Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes."
Clinton's character, her tendency to lawyer questions rather than answer them, is now front and center in this campaign, and that is appropriate. But I'm still stuck on the frenzy to judge Obama's worth by his willingness to attack Clinton. I spent part of the day of the debate watching a parade of talking heads expatiate endlessly on how dire was the need for Obama to go macho. It was "journalism" at its most useless. The ability to eviscerate your opponents is far less important in a President than the ability to defend yourself. In the nine primary campaigns I've covered, the willingness to attack was a) a sign of desperation and b) a leading indicator of failure, especially if it became the defining characteristic of a candidacy. Four years ago, John Kerry wisely decided not to go negative on Howard Dean and won the nomination when Dean and Dick Gephardt slaughtered each other in a negative-ad shoot-out. Now that Edwards has taken the lead against Clinton, Obama might profit by staying aloof and presidential.