Politics & Policy

The Worst Democratic Debate Yet

Candidates take aim at Dean, Bush--and common sense.

At one point in the spin session after Monday’s Democratic presidential debate in Iowa, Rep. Dick Gephardt referred to something he called “non same-sex marriage.” By that, he apparently meant what other people refer to simply as “marriage.” But Gephardt’s painful locution served to show how flummoxed and tongue-tied the marriage issue has left some of the Democrats who want to be president.

During the debate, only non-candidate candidates Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton made clear, unequivocal statements of support for gay marriage. The others hedged and hemmed and hawed.

For example, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said his answer to the marriage question “has been very straightforward”–and then gave a lawyerly sounding statement that could be interpreted as suggesting he supports gay marriage, or could be interpreted as suggesting he opposes it. Retired general Wesley Clark said, “I think that people who want same-sex relationships should have exactly the same rights as people who are in conventional marriages,” but did not say where he stood on the actual question of marriage. And when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose state’s highest court recently ruled on the issue, was asked whether he would “urge the legislature to as swiftly as possible make it legal for gay couples to be married” he said, “I would urge the legislature to do precisely what the Constitution requires, and I would congratulate each of the candidates who have already spoken. I think each of them has spoken eloquently about this.” Kerry then changed the subject to Medicare.

The marriage dodges were representative of the flat and listless exchanges that characterized the first half of the two-hour debate. The session began with Medicare, and perhaps the biggest story was that the normally combative frontrunner Howard Dean came on stage in a positively statesmanlike mood–even when everyone began to attack him.

When the moderator, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, reminded Dean of a Gephardt commercial that virtually accused Dean of kicking poor people in the teeth, the former Vermont governor responded with, “Dick Gephardt’s a good guy. I worked for him in 1988.” The remark seemed to disarm Gephardt, who said, “Howard is a good man, and he’s a good friend.” Then Gephardt accused Dean of kicking poor people in the teeth.

But Gephardt was a sweetheart compared to Kerry, who attacked Dean as if Kerry were Bill Clinton and Dean were Newt Gingrich.

“He’s said several times he’s going to cut the rate of growth in Medicare,” Kerry said of Dean. “I’d like to know if he still intends to reduce the rate of growth in Medicare as one of the ways in which he’s going to balance the budget.”

“We’ve done a great job on health insurance” in Vermont, Dean said.

“But you still haven’t answered my question,” Kerry said.

“We’ve done a great job on kids,” Dean said.

“But you still haven’t answered my question,” Kerry said. “Do you intend to slow the rate of growth in Medicare because you said you were going to do that?”

“Well, what I intend to do in Medicare is to increase reimbursements for states like Iowa and Vermont, which are 50th and 49th respectively,” Dean answered.

“Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor, yes or no?” Kerry said.

“We’re going to do what we have to do to make sure that Medicare lasts.”

“Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor? Because that’s a cut.”

“Well, I’d like to slow the rate of growth of this debate, if I could,” Dean said, in a lame attempt to move on. Finally, Dean declared, “Medicare is off the table,” although it was not clear exactly what that meant.

Of course, no candidate, not even Dean, could make the simple admission that Medicare’s growth is indeed out of control, and that finding a way to slow that rate of growth would be a good thing. A few minutes later, Brokaw tried to broach the subject when he asked Edwards, “Medicare can’t continue to grow at an exponential rate. Everybody knows that…Is it possible to just continue growing Medicare at its current rate? Is it fair to say if you slow the growth rate that’s really a cut?”

“No,” Edwards said, leaving it unclear which question he was answering. Then he changed the subject.

The subject Edwards wanted to address was the Democratic candidates’ tendency to attack each other. “Democrats are all at each other’s throats,” Edwards said. “People are tired of listening to politicians yell at each other.” Edwards urged Democrats to offer “a positive, optimistic, uplifting vision for this country”–and devote their real energies to attacking George W. Bush.

That’s right, said Al Sharpton, warming to the topic. At that point, seasoned debate watchers expected some slick, funny, Sharptonian jabs, but the deadening effect of the Kerry vs. Dean Medicare exchange left even Reverend Al struggling to express himself. “Rather than trying to pin the donkey on each other,” Sharpton said, “we ought to slap the donkey and get it ready to defeat George Bush next November by registering the voters.”

“Nobody fights with Dean more than I do,” Sharpton continued. “Nobody fights with Gephardt more than I do. But all of them in their worst night’s sleep is better than George Bush wide awake that I know.”

By that time, it had been a long debate. And there were still 90 minutes to go.

Time was consumed discussing ethanol–amazingly enough, the candidates told the Iowa audience that they liked it–as well as NAFTA and agri-business. To his credit, Brokaw asked Sharpton “whether you’re ever going to apologize for your role in the Tawana Brawley case.” Sharpton said no.

Not to his credit, Brokaw also uttered the evening’s silliest question when he said to Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, “Congressman Kucinich, let me ask you about the white southern male.” Brokaw asked Kucinich to discuss Georgia Sen. Zell Miller’s criticism of the Democratic party; Kucinich said that if white southern males wanted to become enlightened about politics, they should visit Cleveland.

When the debate’s first hour mercifully came to an end, Brokaw turned the discussion to Iraq. And after 60 minutes of fighting each other, the Democrats finally began to pin the donkey on George W. Bush.

Gephardt repeated his line that the president’s foreign policy has been “a miserable failure.” Kerry said the president had built a “fraudulent coalition” to go to war. But the most aggressive attacks came from Clark, who at various times has said he supported and then not supported the war.

“This president misled the American people and the Congress into war,” Clark said. “This administration took us to war recklessly and without need to do so and it was wrong.”

“We’re in a mess in Iraq,” Clark continued. “I’ve got a plan, and I’ll get us out of that mess.” Unfortunately, Clark did not say what the plan was.

Oddly, the candidate who has most gained from his opposition to the war, Dean, was the least vocal in the debate. Perhaps that was because Brokaw introduced the subject with Dean by discussing reports that Dean got out of the Vietnam draft by citing a bad back–an affliction that did not prevent Dean from leading an active life.

“You got a deferment,” Brokaw said to Dean. “You took letters and an X-ray to your draft board because you had an unfused vertebrae in your back. But then you went skiing for the next year. Skied the moguls–I’ve skied the moguls. I know how tough they are on your back…”

It was a classic opportunity for the notoriously touchy Dean to lose his cool. But that didn’t happen.

“Look, I did not serve in Vietnam,” Dean answered. “I was given a deferment by the United States Government because they did not feel they wanted me in the Army. Dick Gephardt didn’t serve in Vietnam. Joe Lieberman didn’t serve in Vietnam. John Edwards didn’t serve in Vietnam. None of us up here except for General Clark served in Vietnam, and Senator Kerry.”

“I told the truth. I fulfilled my obligation. I took a physical. I failed the physical. If that makes this an issue, then so be it.”

As Dean moved into an attack on other Democrats, particularly Kerry, for supporting the war in Iraq, the audience broke into applause.

After the debate, members of pollster Frank Luntz’s television focus group judged Dean the winner, despite Kerry’s attack on the Medicare issue and Clark’s near-shouting raves about Iraq. Perhaps the people were just reaffirming their previous support for Dean. Perhaps they sensed that Dean simply seemed bigger than his challengers. Whatever the case, at the end of an excruciating session, Dean was right where he was at the beginning: in the lead.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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