The dynamic of the Democratic debate Tuesday night was the mainstream candidates — Dean, Gephardt, Kerry, Edwards — angrily denouncing George W. Bush, and then the fringe candidates — Sharpton, Kucinich, and Graham — denouncing their rivals for not angrily denouncing him enough.
It’s a steady march toward outrage that risks badly mis-positioning the Democratic party on the war and making the Democrats tonally out of touch with a country that — whatever its feelings about Bush — is unlikely to feel such depths of hatred for him. Consider John Kerry, the desperate, used-to-be frontrunner. His debate performance perfectly captured what’s been happening to him and the rest of the field — namely, a lurch left.
Asked whether Bush intentionally misled the country about Iraq, Kerry gave a judicious: “Well, I don’t know the answer to that question until we have the full measure of the investigation into the intelligence and the intelligence failure here. We do know that that exists.”
Then, Bob Graham was asked the same question and answered a flat “yes.” When Kerry had an opportunity to speak again he went out of his way to make it clear why he thought perhaps Bush hadn’t intentionally misled the country — he is too stupid, inattentive, or out of his depth to have known he was lying.
“The reason I can’t tell you to a certainty whether the president misled us is because I don’t have any clue what he really knew about it,” Kerry said, “or whether he was just reading what was put in front of him. And I have no knowledge whether or not this president was in depth, I just don’t know that, and that’s an honest answer. And there are serious suspicions about the level to which this president really was involved in asking the questions that he should have.”
Kerry underwent a similar evolution during the debate on the question of approving Bush’s $87 billion Iraq request. At first, Kerry gave the typical Democratic answer, that he would ask lots questions about how the money would be spent, but he would do what’s necessary to support the troops. But asked a second time, he went further: “If I don’t get the answers and if the president doesn’t set out the way in which he is going to internationalize this, I would be prepared to vote no.”
If Kerry had been asked a third time, he probably would have vowed to vote against the $87 billion no matter what. If asked a fourth time, he would come out for defunding the Iraq operation altogether.
Kerry is moving steadily left because of the appeal of Howard Dean. Since Dean clearly represents the heart of the Democratic party on foreign policy, it is worth listening to him. The former Vermont governor makes Gephardt’s formulation — “This president’s foreign policy is a miserable failure. He has failed the American people.” — seem mild. Dean appeared to blame Bush for the terrorism in Iraq: “This is a battle for terrorism all right. It’s a battle that was created by the president of the United States who ignored the greater danger in Iran and North Korea and al Qaeda at home to do it.”
Dean made it clear what, in his mind, would constitute a more sensible war on terror: “What we should have done is tried to focus on establishing a democracy in a Palestinian state and bring peace to the Middle East instead of invading Iraq and causing more complications and more death and more pain for our American families.” That would teach Osama bin Laden!
The bright spot in the night was when Bob Graham stated his opposition to gay marriage and got applause: “I do not support marriages of homosexuals because I believe that marriage is an institution established by religion, culture, and law for a man and a woman with a principle being the nurturing of children.” Every Republican in America should remember this formulation.
Otherwise, it was tableau of outrage and outrageousness. Al Sharpton made it sound as if American troops were returning to a wasteland: “He talks about loving the troops. He loves them when they’re on the battlefield. But when they come home, he doesn’t love them. They’re coming home to no housing. They’re coming home to no jobs. They’re coming home to no education.”
Joe Lieberman, the moderate, made things sound just as bad: “In 2000, Al Gore and I went all around this country and warned the American people about George W. Bush. We said he would squander our surplus. We said he would compromise civil rights, he would abandon the middle class and he would turn his back on the poor. Let’s be honest about this, the presidency of Bush has been a worse nightmare than even Al and I warned America about.”
John Edwards voted for the Patriot Act, but you wouldn’t know it: “I support dramatic revision of the Patriot Act. The last thing we should be doing is turning over our privacy, our liberties, our freedom, our constitutional rights to John Ashcroft.”
And John Kerry appropriately closed the night with a smear of John Ashcroft in his finishing statement: “Well, you know, I look at this audience, and there are people from every background, every creed, every color, every belief, every religion. That is, indeed, John Ashcroft’s worse nightmare here.”
John Ashcroft doesn’t want people of different backgrounds to sit in the same room together? Ridiculous. But, then again, it was a ridiculous night and is an increasingly ridiculous field.
— Rich Lowry is author of the upcoming Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.