The Democratic Debate

When John Edwards announced that he was suspending his bid for president, he said that he was proud of his campaign’s contribution to the presidential debates and its influence on the other Democratic party candidates. But, he said, it was time to get out of the way of history.

A turning point on history’s path took place in the Los Angeles debate last Thursday at the Kodak Theater between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Even before the debate began the voltage was high. The auditorium was packed with a great cross section of the vast democratic coalition that wants to defeat and roll back eight years of Bush and rightwing Republican domination. And yes they were equally divided between those who held up Hillary signs and those who held up Obama signs.

Even before either candidate walked on the stage the air was pregnant with hope, enthusiasm, energy and optimism. And though the TV cameras tended to focus on celebrities, the crowd was labor, all races and nationalities, women and men, gay and straight, and pumped for change. The crowd resembled those in the historic high voter turnout in the Democratic party primaries so far. They were union activists, peace activists, environmental activists, civil rights and immigrant rights activists, women’s right activists and health care activists. They were plain folks alarmed at the economic crisis and they were anti-poverty activists. And, again, they held up both Obama and Clinton signs.

Both candidates opened the debate noting the road of history that Edwards mentioned. Both beamed with pride and celebrated the fact that no matter who won the Democratic nomination, history would be made – that no matter who won, a great barrier to democracy is being broken – the first African American man or the first women will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.

And as they say, the crowd went wild. And the atmosphere stayed like that throughout the debate. The greatest applause, the greatest enthusiasm and energy, exploded when either candidate mentioned the historic nature of the moment or slammed the Bush administration and the Republican rightwing. The debate was substantive, positive, change oriented and unifying.

And, most important of all, the debate left the audience feeling confident and ready to go. That no matter who won the nomination, the vast movement that has produced and shaped both of these campaigns, including the campaigns of those who have dropped out, is a movement united and in fighting trim for the November elections.

The Republican Debate

Now contrast the Democratic debate with the Republican debate at the Reagan Library just two days before. Here the Blue Stocking, Republican elite sat in a big hanger-like room with a huge airplane. It had all the atmosphere of the Roman Coliseum in the final decadent days of the empire. The crowd politely waited for the bloodletting. And they got their money’s worth.

McCain and Romney went at each other. Though not like gladiators and lions, but more like teenagers at a rich kids high school fighting over who gets to escort the Prom Queen. And while they bickered and glared over who said what and when, Huckabee and Ron Paul pouted on the sidelines.

The audience was divided. Cheers on one side when Romney scored a gotcha, and shouts when McCain landed a zinger. Who could be the meanest and toughest? Who would be harsher? Who could deliver the most tax cuts for the wealthy and big business? Who would stay in Iraq longer with the biggest military occupation force. Though there was a moment of interesting applause when kooky Ron Paul chastised McCain and Romney for wanting to be the ‘cops of the world.’ Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The Republican debate showed the Republicans in disarray and decline – a big business, anti-labor, anti-people, ultra right coalition splintering.


Nothing can be taken for granted and much can change between now and November. But this ‘tale of two debates’ snapshot is laden with lessons. As of now twenty-eight Republicans in Congress are not running again – rats deserting a sinking ship. A time when the ultra right can be most dangerous. But, also a time when they are in disarray and can be defeated.

Still, unity and the energy and the enthusiasm of all the democratic (small ‘d’) forces are necessary for change. Many of us see Obama as the candidate with the most potential. In Illinois we have seen him on the front lines for labor and working people many times, like marching on picketlines for health care workers and strongly making the case for the Employee Free Choice Act. Still, the left and labor cannot afford to invest all its capital in a single candidate in any way that closes the door or dampens the ardor of any other part of the movement that is developing for change. Clinton’s campaign also represents vital sectors of the core democratic forces in motion.

No matter who wins the Democratic primary, the people’s movements will need the full support of all the other candidates and their backers. No single candidate has a monopoly on the movements and the drive and determination that it will take to win. Most of the other also-ran candidates in the Democratic race, especially Kucinich, Edwards and Richardson, represent a vital section of the coalition that it will take to win.

At this point either remaining candidate has the potential to be a transformative figure in a transformative moment. That depends most on unifying the main movements and forces for change and on how much energy and mass participation can be generated for winning in November. But no single candidate’s movement alone – no matter how dynamic – can win in November on its own. This was the great lead that both Democratic candidates gave their supporters in the Los Angeles debate.

Fight on the issues, build the movements for change, support the candidate you feel best moves things forward. But most of all build the bridges of unity that can defeat the right in November and open the door on a new era of change and progress for labor and the people.

–Scott Marshall chairs the labor commission of the , scott Read the labor commission’s blog at