Supporters of one Democratic candidate or another may insist that their man or woman won last Monday’s debate in South Carolina, but in their hearts most viewers could only have been disappointed by its childish tenor and puerile content. Unless those viewers happened to be Republicans, of course — in which case they could only have been delighted.

With a worried nation edging toward financial panic and dragging down the world economy, the Democrats seem strangely preoccupied with petty “snarking.” A debate is supposed to be a discussion of policy, but this last one was nothing more than a blather of insults. It diminished both Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, while former Sen. John Edwards only emphasized his irrelevance with glancing blows at both contenders.

By focusing on obscure votes in the Illinois legislature and old corporate ties, Sens. Clinton and Obama showed that their differences on real issues must be narrow indeed. Their attempts to besmirch each other’s character and commitment were distasteful, especially because those attacks could so easily be mirrored against the attacker.

Consider the nastiest moment in their confrontation, when Obama responded to accusations that he praised Ronald Reagan and Republican ideas. Turning to Clinton, he retorted that while he was “fighting these fights” against Reaganism and its ill effects on American workers, “you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart.”

“I was fighting against those [Republican] ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor [Antoin] Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago,” she replied tartly.

Now it is true that Clinton sat on Wal-Mart’s board — but it is also true that Obama’s wife, until last year, sat on the board of a food company whose profits (and the compensation of its directors) depended heavily on Wal-Mart, its largest customer. Michelle Obama resigned not long after her affiliation with that company began to draw critical scrutiny because of the Wal-Mart connection, inflated management salaries and a controversial plant shutdown in Colorado.

It is true that Obama did legal work for Rezko housing projects in Chicago that ended up in very bad condition, both physically and financially. Those deals lost money for taxpayers and harmed tenants, but enriched the owner — a sleazy guy, since indicted, who was an Obama friend and contributor. But it is also true that years ago, Clinton performed legal work for one or two questionable businessmen in Arkansas.

That ugly exchange revolved around the more substantive issue of Obama’s attitude toward Reagan and Republicanism. Having told a Reno newspaper’s editorial board that the Republicans have been “the party of ideas,” and having said that the country was ready for the “transformative” Reagan presidency in 1980 because of the “excesses” and government expansion in the  ’60s and  ’70s, the Illinois senator realized he had to back away from those remarks. The Republicans, he emphasizes now, are the party of bad ideas.

But why is Obama’s pandering to Republicans so much worse than what Bill Clinton tried to do, back when he told the nation that the “era of big government is over” and “triangulated” between the Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill? Those were savvy strategies for stopping Republican advances. Obama is a smart politician who has figured out how to attract independent and even a few Republican voters.

In short, both senators were corporate lawyers, and both have enjoyed happy connections in the corporate world (as did that budding populist, Mr. Edwards). Both the Obamas and the Clintons realize that drawing support from the center is the only way to win elections in America. More importantly, however, both have also displayed considerable idealism and commitment to the poor. And each of them knows that the other is not a hypocrite or a fraud. So why do they pretend to dismiss each other with cheap canards?

Whatever the reason, they should fulfill their earlier promise to leave those tactics behind and treat each other as honorable competitors, whose goals are not so different. They should stop describing each other in terms that would make an endorsement seem impossible, or at best insincere, next November.

What voters want to hear — in every debate — is what they talk about when the other isn’t present: how they propose to improve our prospects in an ominous time.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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