You can say this about Richard Gephardt: He sticks to his ideas, even when they make absolutely no sense.
Gephardt’s unerring consistency was on full display at the presidential debate Thursday night when a woman named Joy Clayton, the owner of a small business called Bobby C’s Lounge and Grille, rose to ask the candidates what they would do to help ease the burden that government places on her business.
“I found that there were so many taxes associated with going into business,” Clayton said. “There were taxes upon taxes. There’s a privilege tax that you’re levied just for the privilege of doing business. What would you do to try to help those of use who are trying to be in small business accomplish it without so much of the pain?”
Debate moderator Judy Woodruff turned to Gephardt. You’ve advocated repealing the entire Bush tax cut, she said. Wouldn’t that be a tax increase for people like Joy Clayton?
Perhaps Gephardt didn’t hear the question. Or perhaps he just didn’t understand it. In any event, after telling Clayton that “small businesses like yours are having to pay a lot of tax,” Gephardt said the solution to her problem would be to…repeal the Bush tax cut.
Gephardt explained to Clayton that even though she was struggling under high taxes, by raising her taxes even further, he would be able to fund universal, single-payer health care, which would save her the money she spent providing health care for her employees.
The problem was, almost anybody watching could guess that Bobby C’s Lounge and Grille, like many small businesses, probably didn’t have a full-scale employee health-care plan. Even John Kerry could figure that one out.
“I’m not sure that’s even applicable here,” Kerry said, jumping in to the exchange. “Do you even have health care for your employees?” Clayton nodded her head no, meaning that the answer Gephardt had just given her was resoundingly irrelevant to her actual situation. Sensing that he had scored a takedown, Kerry went on to tell Clayton that he would not raise her taxes.
The moment was Gephardt’s worst of the debate. It came toward the end, when the candidates had removed their coats, rolled up their sleeves and got down to the business of answering questions from the audience. Before that, in the more formal, wear-your-coat-and-stand-behind-the-podium portion of the debate, the candidates devoted less time to misunderstanding the needs of small businesses and more time to attacking Wesley Clark.
Howard Dean got things started when he reminded the audience that last year Clark had advised a congressional candidate, Katrina Swett, to support the resolution for war in Iraq.
A short time later, Joseph Lieberman picked up where Dean left off. “I must say that I’ve been very disappointed since Wes Clark came into this race about the various positions he has taken on the war against Saddam Hussein,” Lieberman said. “Howard Dean is right…When [Clark] became a candidate he said he probably would have voted for the [Iraqi war] resolution. There was an uproar. Then he said: I never would have voted for the resolution….We need a candidate who will meet the test of reaching a conclusion and having the courage to stick with it.”
Clark tried to defend himself. He really, really opposed going into Iraq, he said. “I would never have voted for war,” Clark said. “The war was an unnecessary war. It was an elective war, and it’s been a huge strategic mistake for this country.”
Then Clark sent what any candidate would recognize as a distress signal. “I’m not going to attack a fellow Democrat,” he declared in a voice that said, Please stop attacking me.
If Clark really thought that would work, he was seriously mistaken. “I disagree with General Clark that this is an attack when Joe Lieberman raises an issue,” Kerry said, piling on. “The fact is that last year General Clark did say he would vote for the resolution that was in the Congress. In addition to that, at the time in May when he said that the right people were in charge, referring to Bush and to Cheney and Rumsfeld.”
Beaten back, Clark tried to present his bona fides. “Let me be very clear on this: I did not vote for George W. Bush. I voted for Al Gore.” Then, in what seemed like an admission, he confessed that he had indeed once said something positive about Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld: “Like every other American, I wanted the national security team to be successful.”
But nothing Clark said could buy him peace. The audience laughed when a clearly delighted Lieberman said to him, “The first thing I want to say, Wes Clark, welcome to the Democratic presidential campaign.” Then Lieberman made clear: “Look, none of us are above questioning.”
Things took a momentarily surreal turn when Dennis Kucinich stopped attacking Clark and instead attacked Dean for being a hawk on Iraq. The former Vermont governor had said that even though he opposed the war, the U.S. could not simply withdraw its troops. Kucinich–who sometimes chants “U.N. in, U.S. out”–supports an immediate retreat.
“Would you fund keeping the troops in Iraq?” Kucinich asked Dean.
“Yes,” Dean said.
“You would?” Kucinich said, a little incredulously.
“If the president was willing to pay for it…”
“I would say bring our troops home, Governor,” Kucinich said.
“You can’t do that,” Dean answered.
After that brief dustup, everyone got back to whacking Clark.
There was no winner in Thursday night’s debate, which was the most contentious of the four debates held so far. Gephardt embarrassed himself, Clark was a punching bag, and Kerry stumbled through. Even Al Sharpton didn’t get in his normal quotient of crowd-pleasing lines. Dean, as he has at previous debates, did not dazzle but also did not make any serious mistakes.
When it was over, CNN, the network that sponsored and aired the debate, cut away quickly, with only minimal commentary, to resume its coverage of the Kobe Bryant case. By that time, many of its viewers had no doubt already left.