Why The Debate Matters

Many of my fellow journalists may pick nits with ABC News' performance last night, but I wonder how many really understand why it's an important issue, in fact one of the defining issues of this campaign. In a vacuum, it is perfectly possible to ridicule those of us who were appalled by last night as Obamaniacs or, worse, pious about the ruff-and-tumble of politics. But in the current historical moment, I really don't think that's right.

It comes down to the most basic argument about the Obama candidacy. Here's what I think it is:

If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the argument for Obama is not that strong. Clinton will do. And a Clinton-Giuliani race could be as invigorating as it is utterly predictable.

But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution.

That's what I've come to believe, in part from trying to account for my own massive misjudgment over Iraq and near-disbelief at what has happened to limited government conservatism in the past decade. I think the United States is in deep trouble. In massive debt, bogged down in a $3 trillion war in Iraq with no end in sight, its moral reputation globally in tatters, its Constitution undermined from within, America desperately needs a substantive, honest debate about the future, a root-and-branch review of foreign policy, of tax policy, of environmental policy, of torture and terror policies and of entitlements. And we do not have the luxury of using elections in this climate as a way to fight over cultural conflicts originating in this instance from the boomer civil war stemming from the 1960s. That's why I once so feared a Clinton-Giuliani contest. But it is what the Clintons know; and it is what they have decided to turn their own primary campaign into. From flag-pins to Ayers to Wright - it's all about re-fighting the boomer culture wars.

This is not a question of pieties; it's a question of priorities.

And most Americans not marinated in the professional political culture of Washington have responded to this obvious concern. That's why McCain emerged on the right and Obama on the left. That's why so many millions have engaged in this electoral cycle where they were once utterly detached from it. This is a critical part of the reform needed to right the ship of state.

Last night was not Obama's finest hour. But when you look back and see what he has already accomplished by the manner and content and care of his campaign, he is obviously on the right side. Key elements of the MSM establishment, the political establishment and the ideological right and cynical left know how big a threat he is to them. That's why Hannity can join forces with Stephanopoulos and Clinton can channel Rove. Because in this issue, they are all on the same side.

If you want to keep playing that game while this country nose-dives, go ahead. Vote Clinton. If you understand how important this is, the candidacy of Barack Obama has never been so worth supporting. We need to turn this debacle into a renewed determination to get rid of the forces strangling this country's capacity to right itself.

Yes, we can.