ABC News is coming under intense criticism for its handling of Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Pennsylvania. During the first forty-five minutes of the debate, the moderators focused on Senator Barack Obama’s comments that some voters in Pennsylvania were bitter, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy, Senator Hillary Clinton’s Bosnia “sniper fire” story, flag pins and the Weather Underground, before later turning to the issues. We play highlights of the debate
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with last night’s Democratic presidential debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama. It took place in Philadelphia, their first debate in nearly two months, possibly their last of the campaign. Clinton is trailing Obama in both the popular vote and the delegate count. Even if she wins Tuesday’s Pennsylvania’s primary, she would need the backing of Democratic superdelegates to win the nomination.
Much of the debate’s first half had Senator Obama on the defensive. ABC News anchors Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos confronted Obama about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his alleged ties to a former member of the ’60s group the Weather Underground. Obama was even asked about the fact he doesn’t wear an American flag on his lapel. Obama was also pressed about his recent comments that disenfranchised Americans have turned to guns and religion. This was Senator Obama’s response.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Let me be very clear about what I meant, because it’s something that I’ve said in public, it’s something that I’ve said on television, which is that people are going through very difficult times right now. And we are seeing it all across the country, and that was true even before the current economic hardships that are stemming from the housing crisis. This is the first economic expansion that we just completed in which ordinary people’s incomes actually went down, when adjusted for inflation, at the same time as their costs of everything from healthcare to gas at the pump have skyrocketed.
And so, the point I was making was that when people feel like Washington’s not listening to them, when they’re promised year after year, decade after decade, that their economic situation is going to change, and it doesn’t, then politically they end up focusing on those things that are constant, like religion. They end up feeling “This is a place where I can find some refugee. This is something that I can count on.” They end up being much more concerned about votes around things like guns, where traditions have been passed on from generation to generation. And those are incredibly important to them.
And yes, what is also true is that wedge issues, hot-button issues, end up taking prominence in our politics. And part of the problem is that when those issues are exploited, we never get to solve the issues that people really have to get some relief on, whether it’s healthcare or education or jobs.
AMY GOODMAN: In a reversal of previous statements, Senator Clinton conceded she believes Obama could defeat McCain in November, but she also defended her campaign’s focus on Obama’s recent comments and argued she’s the better candidate to take on Republican candidate John McCain.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: First of all, I want to be very clear: my comments were about your remarks. And I think that’s important, because it wasn’t just me responding to them, it was people who heard them, people who felt as though they were aimed at their values, their quality of life, the decisions that they have made.
Now, obviously, what we have to do as Democrats is make sure we get enough votes to win in November. And as George just said, you know, the Republicans, who are pretty shrewd about what it takes to win, certainly did jump on the comments.
But what’s important here is what we each stand for and what our records are and what we have done over the course of our lives to try to improve the circumstances of those who deserve to live up to their own potential, to make the decisions that are right for them and their families. And I think year after year for now thirty-five years, I have a proven record of results.
And what I’m taking into this campaign is my passion for empowering people, for giving people the feeling that they can make a better future for themselves. And I think it’s important that that starts from a base of respect and connection in order to be able to get people to follow you and believe that you will lead them in the better direction.
AMY GOODMAN: The debate later turned to the issues. On Iraq, both candidates vowed to begin a withdrawal from Iraq rather than wait for a recommendation from General David Petraeus.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: But one thing I am sure of is that our staying in Iraq, our continuing to lose our men and women in uniform, having many injured, the Iraqi casualties that we are seeing as well, is no way for us to maintain a strong position in the world.
It’s not only about Iraq. It is about ending the war in Iraq, so that we can begin paying attention to all of the other problems we have. There isn’t any doubt that Afghanistan has been neglected. It has not gotten the resources that it needs. We hear that from our military commanders responsible for that region of the world. And there are other problems that we have failed to address.
So the bottom line for me is, we don’t know what will happen as we withdraw. We do know what will happen if we stay mired in Iraq. The Iraqi government will not accept responsibility for its own future. Our military will continue to be stretched thin, and our soldiers will be on their second, third, even their fourth deployment. And we will not be able to reassert our leadership and our moral authority in the world. And I think those are the kind of broad issues that a president has to take into account.
CHARLIE GIBSON: And Senator Obama, your campaign manager, David Plouffe, said, “When he is”—this is talking about you—“When he is elected president, we will be out of Iraq […] in sixteen months at the most; there should be no confusion about that.” So you’d give the same rock-hard pledge, that no matter what the military commanders said, you would give the order: bring them home.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Because the commander-in-chief sets the mission, Charlie. That’s not the role of the generals. And one of the things that’s been interesting about the President’s approach lately has been to say, ‘Well, I’m just taking cues from General Petraeus.’ Well, the President sets the mission. The General and our troops carry out that mission. And unfortunately, we have had a bad mission set by our civilian leadership, which our military has performed brilliantly. But it is time for us to set a strategy that is going to make the American people safer.
Now, I will always listen to our commanders on the ground with respect to tactics. Once I’ve given them a new mission, that we are going to proceed deliberately in an orderly fashion out of Iraq and we are going to have our combat troops out, we will not have permanent bases there, once I’ve provided that mission, if they come to me and want to adjust tactics, then I will certainly take their recommendations into consideration. But ultimately the buck stops with me as the commander-in-chief.