Barack Obama's stunning victory in Iowa lifts our hearts, no matter whom we support. You can't help but be touched by a brilliant, passionate African American with a message of hope winning the vote of Iowa's presidential caucuses. Although it's only a first step in a long race for Obama, it is surely a giant step for America.
Nearly 44 years ago, Fanny Lou Hamer led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to the Democratic convention in Atlantic City, challenging a Mississippi delegation that had systematically excluded all blacks. Hamer had to kick open locked doors simply to gain a hearing. She was dismissed by President Lyndon Johnson as an "illiterate." In the end, two delegates from the Freedom Democratic Party were seated, on condition that Hamer not be among them. Four years later, Democrats required equal representation. And now four decades later, an African-American leader can compete on a more level playing field.
On the stage of the Democratic debate Saturday night in New Hampshire were the leading candidates for the nomination -- a white woman, an African American, a white man and a Latino -- strong leaders all, contesting for the presidency. (Dennis Kucinich was unfairly excluded from the debate.) We have come a long way.
George Bush the First talked in New Hampshire's primary about having the "Big Mo," as in momentum. Obama enjoys far more than that. He's got the "Big M's": magnetic personality, magic moment, message, money and momentum. And the preposterously short primary season -- it's all over essentially by Feb. 5 -- dramatically favors anyone who can win the early contests, in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. If Obama wins today in New Hampshire, he will be well on his way.
The media are into the horse race: Who's up? Who's down? Daily polls, focus groups, on-the-street interviews. Lost in all this are the issues Americans care most about.
Never was this more apparent than in the New Hampshire debate. Moderator Charles Gibson came with videos on various issues to set up discussions. The first, on nuclear weapons and terrorism, stimulated a serious discussion. The second was on the budget deficits, priorities and entitlements, but Gibson clearly was tired of substance. He turned to Clinton and asked her what positions of Obama she thought ought to be "vetted." Rather than substantive differences on Social Security and spending -- of which there are many -- he teed up the tit-for-tat discussion that got the headlines the next day.
It is time to get real. This economy is probably already in recession. Last month, the private sector lost jobs. Millions are facing the loss of their homes. More and more students are getting priced out of college. Our infrastructure is crumbling, our cities being ignored; New Orleans has been abandoned. Oil is at $100 a barrel. The dollar is sinking. Catastrophic climate change is a real and present danger. We've squandered lives and resources on the war in Iraq, even as al-Qaida is consolidating and a nuclear-armed Pakistan is in turmoil. Kenya (the home of Obama's father), which is now disintegrating into violence, somehow was not part of the debate.
We need commentators to probe these issues with candidates. Not with "gotcha" questions -- "Do you know the name of the interim Uzbekistan prime minister?" -- but in ways that are as sober as the moment.
Obama is now the Democratic front-runner, with Mike Huckabee and John McCain running strong on the Republican side. They will and should be scrutinized. But let's put aside the opposition research and partisan jibes that magnify the petty. Let's focus on their answers to real challenges
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