By Joel Wendland
NBC's Brian Williams led off the Nevada debate with a question about how the campaign for the Democratic nomination got to the point where race and gender came to the foreground in sharp attacks between the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Clinton opened by speaking nicely about Obama and regretting the overzealousness of her campaign staff. "What is most important is that neither race nor gender should be part of this campaign," she said.
"We are family in the Democratic Party. We are so different from the Republicans on these issues," she added.
In his response, Obama asserted that there are so many more serious problems to deal with than bickering between the campaigns. "I know John and Hillary have always ben committed to equality," he stated. Obama, too, blamed an overzealous staff and said, "We want to make sure we focus on the issues."
Obama added that he didn't really believe in the Bradley effect. He expressed confidence in voters who will judge him on his record and ability, his vision, and plans not his skin color. He expressed confidence that voters would judge him on whether he succeeds in creating jobs with good wages, ending the foreclosure crisis, promoting retirement security, and so on.
Referring to a comment Clinton made last week in which she downplayed Dr. Martin Luther King's role in promoting civil rights laws in favor of the role of President Johnson in signing those laws, Obama did add, "change is going to happen because the American people determine it's going to happen. That's where I draw on Dr. King's legacy."
In my view, Obama succeeded in pointing out an important philosophical and ethical distinction between himself and Sen. Clinton. Here he insisted on the role of the people in bringing about change and being part of a broad movement to do so, whereas Clinton seemed to be insisting on a "Great Woman" version of history in which she is the main agent of change.
Obama expressed regret that in the last debate he appeared to suggest that Hillary isn't likable, insisting that she is "plenty likable."
For her part, Clinton expressed regret that her campaign had accused Obama of "raising false hopes" and said, "When we have a Democratic nominee we'll have a totally unified party."
Citing his southern upbringing during the Jim Crow era, Edwards said, "I feel an enormous personal responsibility to move forward" on issues of race and gender. He cited the historic candidacies of Obama and Clinton as a good thing, "It says good things about America."
A more substantive discussion of race and racism in US politics will have to wait for another day.