Politics & Policy

The Empire Strikes Back in New Hampshire

They meet again.

MANCHESTER, N.H.–When Howard Dean was the Democratic presidential candidate that the other contenders feared most (meaning in the six or so months before the Iowa results came in Monday), you could tell he was the Feared One because all of the other candidates mimicked him in a shameless ploy to tap into that mysterious something he had that no one else seemed to have. If this were an Austin Powers film, we’d call it his “mojo.” The tone of Thursday night’s debate was positive, cheerful, and sober. In short, John Edwards is the one the others are scared of now.

Not that Edwards won the debate, though he had some strong moments. But his out-of-nowhere rise in Iowa, which few saw coming, has made the other candidates take notice. His campaign style has been co-opted by his fellow contenders, who are hurriedly trying to inoculate themselves against his death-by-toothy-southern-grin. That, and they know that acting dignified and friendly will favorably contrast them with Hooting Howie. Even the former Vermont governor is acting dignified and friendly so he can differentiate himself from himself. It’s New Dean vs. Classic Dean.

So, Edwards could be considered a major victor at the debate, despite a few botched answers, even though John Kerry probably “won” by coming across as the most confident, poised, and more presidential than the others, even if too scripted and “too Kerry.” The real loser was Dean, who. . . well, O.K., the real loser was Al Sharpton, who didn’t even know what the Federal Reserve does. But everyone already knew Sharpton was a loser.

Dean had regained his composure from Monday night, though he hadn’t regained his voice, which Kerry, who also lost his voice in Iowa, had done. Dean didn’t lose because he handled himself poorly or made a major gaffe. He lost because he finally had to play the game. He had to obey the rules of civilized political discourse. Instead of everyone else adhering to standards of behavior set by Dean–raising their voices and waving their fists–Dean was the one who had to conform. How he must’ve hated it!

It may not have been evident to the television audience, but Dean got surprisingly little spontaneous applause from the live crowd. Instead of rousing the audience to fits of approval, he spoke softly and seemed to be searching for his voice, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps it was his passion itself–the raw, untamed emotion–that roused so many to his side, and only secondarily his message.

Kerry, at least from the audience, looked good. He was collected, and he seemed to fumble fewer questions than did the others–though that was mostly because he whipped out his memorized vague generalities when he couldn’t directly answer the question. But dodging is better than fumbling. However, not everyone thought he did so well. Zach Blatt, a 15-year-old aspiring “politician or political commentator” who had come with his broadcast-media class to watch the debate, said of Kerry afterwards, “Some of his answers were lousy. He talked about all the endorsements he got. That’s a surefire recipe for disaster.” And to think, when I was 15 I wasted most of my time sitting in my room listening to Journey and Rush on my headphones instead of practicing my political analysis.

Anyway, the main point of the evening is that Dean has fizzled into a defensive shell of his former self, Clark was vaguely reminiscent of Admiral Stockdale, and Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman–the establishment candidates written off not so long ago–were back in command like Darth Vader after destroying the rebel base on Hoth.

Lieberman has little support in New Hampshire, but he got the most laughs and he seemed to have the best time. His retort to Peter Jennings for trying to get him to criticize other candidates, “Nice try,” was great. And his “I’ve gotten older and wiser” when asked why he supports the N.H. primary now when he once tried to abolish it, was a hit with the audience. But his answer on prescription drugs (that America should import them from Canada because Canada’s government keeps prices lower there) made no sense (eventually American drug companies will stop selling to Canada at a discount, duh!), and he lost maybe half of the crowd, and who knows how many voters, when he defended his support of the war in Iraq. Here is what the live audience heard when Lieberman made his point:

Lieberman: “This was a just war”

From the audience: “Sssssssssssssssssss!”

Lieberman: “I believed Saddam Hussein was a clear and present danger to the United States and threat to the security of the United States, the people of Iraq and the stability of the world.”

From the audience: “Oh, come on!”

Lieberman: “I’ve said before that, at times, in its policy, the Bush administration has given a bad name to a just war. But a just war it was.”

From the audience: “BOOOOO!”

Edwards, on the other hand, masterfully explained how it wasn’t contradictory for him to support the war resolution then vote against the $87 billion for continuing the war on terror and criticize the war. I almost believed him. But then, he has had 20 years’ practice persuading juries.

While Kerry, Edwards, and Lieberman were showing that the title “senator means something, Clark, Sharpton, and Kucinich were demonstrating that the word “amateur” means something, too.

Sharpton was Sharpton. No surprise, though jaws did drop in the audience when he answered a question about who he would appoint to the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve Board by saying, “Oh, in the Federal Reserve Board, I would be looking for someone that would set standards in this country, in terms of our banking, our–in how government regulates the Federal Reserve as we see it under Greenspan, that we would not be protecting the big businesses; we would not be protecting banking interests in a way that would not, in my judgment, lead toward mass employment, mass development, and mass production. I think that–would I replace Greenspan, probably. Do I have a name? No.” Glad we cleared that up.

Kucinich also was Kucinich. He showed some charts, and even made Peter Jennings laugh when he went on and on and on explaining who provided the charts and where they could be found on the Internet. He also had the hands-down best line of the night. Using the space program as a metaphor for his own plans to help the environment, he said, “I intend to have a very infinitely interesting journey to planet Earth.” Houston, we have a candidate.

Even that, however, was not enough to retrieve the Buffoon Of The Evening Award from Clark. A sampling of Clark’s answers: Asked about his defense of Michael Moore, who made, in Peter Jennings’s words, a “reckless charge not supported by the facts” when he alleged while standing beside Clark at a Clark rally that President Bush had deserted his National Guard unit during Vietnam, Clark said: “I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don’t know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I’ve never looked at it. I’ve seen this charge bandied about a lot. But to me it wasn’t material.” Pressed further by Jennings, he responded, “To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts, Peter. You know, that’s Michael Moore’s opinion. He’s entitled to say that. I’ve seen–he’s not the only person who ’s said that. I’ve not followed up on those facts. And frankly, it’s not relevant to me and why I’m in this campaign.”

Asked by Brit Hume how he could have written glowing praise of the Iraq war and President Bush and Tony Blair for the Times of London last April if he had opposed the war all along, he responded that “it’s written in a foreign publication. I’m not going to take U.S. policy and my differences with the administration directly into a foreign publication.”

Asked how he reconciles his support for abortion with his claim to be, or have been, a Roman Catholic, he said, “I reconcile it with myself. I understand what the Catholic doctrine is, but I have freedom of conscience.” Well, just as long as you don’t tell God, I guess it’s O.K.

Clark did have one good line, though. Asked when he discovered that he was a Democrat, he listed several Democratic tenets he holds and said, “I was either going to be the loneliest Republican in America, or I was going to be a happy Democrat.”

Of the nonestablishment candidates, Dean was the least doofus-ish. But as usual, his words got in the way. A sampling of Dean moments:

“My words are not always precise, but my meaning is clear.”

“There was no middle class tax cut.” Lieberman effortlessly retorted this assertion moments later.

“What I can offer the American people is somebody who believes in social justice tempered by being a fiscal conservative.” The audience didn’t know whether to clap or boo.

The establishment boys had their moments, too. Asked what he knew about Islam, Edwards, for whom every subject is about money, said, “I think I do understand the tragedy of the day-to-day lives of people who live in Arab countries, who live lives of hopelessness and despair. I think that contributes to the animosity that they feel toward the United States.” Oh, like millionaire Osama bin Laden and his band of wealthy Saudi hijackers?

And Kerry bragged of cutting taxes by saying that the top income tax rate was 72 percent when he entered the Senate and “We took it down to 28 percent under Reagan.” Doh! Mentioned the anti-Christ!

You may have noticed that Edwards twice praised Kerry very glowingly. What you didn’t see was that during every commercial break, Kerry and Edwards immediately huddled and chatted together, mostly ignoring everyone else. At one point Edwards was visibly upset about something and went straight to Kerry to complain about it. They commiserated like school chums. When the debate ended, Kerry immediately turned to Edwards and put out his hand, but Edwards was already shaking Lieberman’s hand, and Kerry awkwardly turned and gave his already extended hand to Sharpton. I think the implications of these moments are very clear: Edwards wants Kerry as his vice president.

In the end, it didn’t matter that the only celebrity in the audience, Rob Reiner, who I bumped into coming out of the men’s room, looked somewhat presidential himself, in a Howard Taft kind of way, and was wearing a Howard Dean sticker. It didn’t matter that a large and panicked-looking police officer hauled three Lyndon LaRouche supporters out of the event at the very instant it went live on the air. It didn’t matter that I overheard some guy in the spin room say into his cell phone, “What are you talking about? You’ ve got a 10-foot penis on your hands.”

What mattered was that just five days before the New Hampshire primary, John Kerry and John Edwards were the favorites they were originally expected to be, Lieberman was funny, charming, and struggling to get noticed amid the glow from the Kerry/Edwards teeth, Dean looked like he was recovering from a very bad hangover, and the rest of the candidates shouldn’t even have been there. The establishment had struck back at the insurgents, and this time there was no Obi-Wan Kenobi to pull their hologram out of a droid and come to their rescue. Maybe Dennis Kucinich can find him and bring him back to earth before it’s too late.

Andrew Cline is editorial-page editor of the Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News in Manchester, N.H.

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