The geniuses at ABC TV did everything wrong, spending the first hour of the Democratic debate on nasty trivia, butchering the continuity of both hours with endless commercials and having their moderators badger the candidates to the point of interrupting their answers to argue with them.
For fully half the time, Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos harped on Jeremiah Wright and sniper fire in Bosnia, adding to the ugly mix a former member of the Weather Underground with a marginal connection to Obama. The premise seemed to be that Republicans would run a Karl Rovian smear campaign against one of them in the fall, so why not preview it now?
Obama protested that American voters would not succumb to those tactics in a year when they faced serious problems, but Clinton seemed eager enough to roll in the mud under the high-minded pretense of discussing "character."
In the second hour, when the questions became substantive, on Iraq and the economy, Hillary Clinton was at her sure-handed best while Obama gave cogent enough answers but seemed a little weary of suppressing his anger and dealing with Gibson's gotcha questioning.
The dismal two hours started with a suggestion from Mario Cuomo, the best president we never had, that the candidates promise now to run on the same ticket, regardless of who wins. They refused, of course, but if the campaign continues along the lines set by ABC last night, it might be impossible to get them into the same room by convention time.