Dancing in The Dark
The Dems debate in Baltimore.


Michael Graham

And the winner at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was…Bruce Springsteen!

When asked to name their favorite song, Sen. Kerry chose “No Surrender” and Rep. Gephardt picked “Born In The U.S.A.,” both Springsteen tunes. (Bruce also gets half a point for Sen. Edwards’s choice of “Small Town,” John Mellencamp’s unimaginative knock-off of Springsteen’s “My Hometown”)

Indeed, Springsteen’s 1980s Rust-Belt angst could have been the soundtrack of the evening’s debate with its gloomy view of the current American landscape. According to the nine Democratic candidates, the economy is in shambles, health care is in crisis, our foreign policy is failing and, in the opinion of Al Sharpton, the KKK is lurking in the shadows to bring back Jim Crow and public lynchings. And every one of these problems can be laid wholly at the feet of President Bush.

“When I think of the promises George Bush made in 2000 and has broken since, it makes me sick,” exclaimed the once-rational Sen. Lieberman. Rep. Gephardt continued to ask, “How many jobs must be lost before George W. Bush loses his!” Not to be outdone, Al Sharpton declared: “We are witnessing a nonmilitary civil war. It started with the recount in Florida, it went to the redistricting in Texas, now it’s the recount in California!”

What a relief to see serious-minded Democrats speaking thoughtfully about the issues.

In truth, the more specific and detailed the answers — as when Rep. Gephardt tried to explain how he repeatedly voted to support President Bush’s foreign policy while simultaneously opposing it — the less the audience response. The crowd at Morgan State University had an American Idol feel to it (enhanced by the game-show-style stage set), and they wanted to hear the hits — straight shots straight at President Bush.

They got them from Al Sharpton, of course, with lines like “[bin Laden] has out more videos than a rock star, but George Bush’s intelligence agencies can’t find him.” But if Rev. Al was their Ruben, Gov. Dean was their Clay-smooth, well-rehearsed, and singing from the anti-Bush song sheet.

Gov. Dean’s claim that what he wants more than anything as president is to “restore the honor and dignity and respect that this country is owed around the world” may not inspire the typical union member or soccer mom, but to the internationalists of the far Left, it was right on key.

Sen. Lieberman tried to make hay out of Dean’s recent comment that America should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it had little affect. An audience that cheers Al Sharpton with gusto is unlikely to be concerned about the security of Israel. However, Dean made a quite astonishing statement in rebuttal, namely that the Democrats “need to beat Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East.”

If there were even a chance that Dean is right, and defeating George W. Bush would bring about peace between Israelis and Arabs, I’d change my voter registration tomorrow. What this comment reveals is the fundamental failing of the Democrats in this debate: While they agreed that every Bush policy has been wrong, they offered virtually no alternative policies to set America right. The fight against terrorism was reduced last night to complaints that Osama is still free and Iraq is still dangerous. But not a single suggestion on what to do about either condition.

The same was true of unemployment, the one dark cloud amid the current economic recovery under which every candidate stood with his umbrella open. Sen. Kerry’s line that “I am glad the president finally found an economic-development program, I am just sad it is in Baghdad” is a good one, but it doesn’t answer the question of what a Kerry presidency would do about the global economic forces that are making American workers more productive but less often employed.

The best news of the night was that, despite the direct involvement of the Congressional Black Caucus, the evening did not devolve into a pander party. Yes, issues of race relations were raised, but no more often or insistently than the issues of farm price supports or ethanol at the typical Iowa stump meeting. The few token attempts at blatant sucking up, like Howard Dean’s claim his favorite song is “Jaspora” by hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, were hardly taken seriously. (Ten bucks says Dean doesn’t even own a Fugees CD, by the way).

What finally emerged after 90 minutes of debate was that the Democratic presidential candidates have what might be called a “shock-jock” problem — each must become ever more strident or outrageous to be heard above the other.

How this ends isn’t clear, but it is a strange thing when, after listening to nine politicians campaign for the same office, your first reaction is to wonder if there are any more candidates to choose from.

Michael Graham, a radio talk-show host, is author of Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War.