Politics & Policy

The Democratic Debate: Torture, Bankruptcy, Haircuts, Bible Verses, and a Prince Marrying Another Prince

A weird night in New Hampshire.

It’s been common practice in recent months for Democratic presidential candidates to pledge their devotion to fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. Perhaps you’re skeptical, but that’s what they say. Until last night, at a debate at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, when one courageous candidate dared challenge the new orthodoxy.

It happened when moderator Tim Russert asked former senator Mike Gravel about Gravel’s somewhat troubled financial history. A condominium business started by Gravel went bankrupt, and Gravel himself once declared personal bankruptcy. “How can someone who did not take care of his business, could not manage his personal finances, say that he is capable of managing the country?” Russert asked.

“Well, first off, if you want to make a judgment of who can be the greediest people in the world when they get to public office, you can just look at the people up here,” Gravel said in a nod to his fellow candidates.

“Now, you say the condo business,” he continued. “I will tell you, Donald Trump has been bankrupt 100 times. So I went bankrupt once in business. And the other — who did I bankrupt? I stuck the credit card companies with $90,000 worth of bills, and they deserved it — “

People in the audience began to laugh.

“They deserved it,” Gravel repeated, “and I used the money to finance the empowerment of the American people with a national initiative.”

Gravel’s answer was unprecedented in the history of these debates, and, if nothing else, it seemed guaranteed to win him at least a share of the insolvent vote, even among those who have stuck credit card companies for debts far more prosaic than empowering the American people with national initiatives.

A few moments later, it was former senator John Edwards’s turn to be touchy about money. “Your campaign has hit some obstacles with revelations about $400 haircuts, $500,000 for working for a hedge fund, $800,000 from Rupert Murdoch,” Russert said to Edwards. “Do you wish you hadn’t taken money in all those cases or hadn’t made that kind of expenditure for a haircut?”

Edwards should have been grateful; at least Russert hadn’t mentioned that 28,000 square-foot house. Instead, Edwards put on his best Hey!-I’m-the-guy-who-talks-about-two-Americas-how-dare-you-ask-me-that-question look and launched straight into the campaign biography he has repeated in so many stump speeches. “Well, first of all, I think if you look at my entire life, I am proud of what I’ve spent my life doing,” he told Russert. “I’m not perfect. There’s not a single person on this stage who’s perfect, but I came from a family — I was born into nothing. I was brought home to a two-room house in a mill village. I have spent my entire life fighting for the kind of people that I grew up with. They worked in the mill with my father. And I don’t apologize for the fact that I have worked hard and built a life which I hope will make life easier for my children. I’m proud of that. I’m not ashamed of that. And I am proud of having stood up for the people that I grew up with. It’s what I have done my entire life. I did it for 20 years as lawyer. It’s what I’ve done every minute that I’ve been in public life. It is the reason that I’ve been going around the country helping organize workers into unions. It is the reason we started a College for Everyone program for low-income kids. It is the reason Elizabeth and I started an after-school program for kids who otherwise would have no chance to go to an after-school program, having access to technology. I’m proud of what I’ve done with my life, and I do not apologize for it. And I do not apologize for it.”

No mention of hedge funds or haircuts or Murdoch.

By the way, Edwards’s line, “I was brought home to a two-room house in a mill village” was carefully crafted, a reflection of his years of experience as a personal injury lawyer. Yes, after he was born he was brought home to a small house. But within a year his family moved to a better house as his father, a mill worker, began a rise that eventually made him a supervisor.

Of course there were many topics of substance discussed at Dartmouth. There was a lot of Iraq, plus Iran, health care, and entitlements. But Wednesday’s debate, crisply run but without much news, was most interesting during its offbeat moments. Like when Allison King, with New England Cable News, asked the candidates about a case in which some Massachusetts parents were angry that their children, in second grade, had been read a story at school about gay marriage, “a prince who marries another prince.” Everybody seemed to think that was fine, although Edwards did concede that “Second grade might be a little tough.”

“Well, that’s the point,” King responded. “It is second grade.” Edwards answered that, if elected president, he would get rid of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Then came the moment when Russert asked the candidates to name their favorite Bible verse. Sen. Barack Obama said the Sermon on the Mount, which was a little broad, but allowed him to riff on the federal deficit and an “empathy deficit.” Rep. Dennis Kucinich cited the prayer of St. Francis, which isn’t in the Bible. That was a little odd, because at other gatherings Kucinich has often cited “repairers of the breach,” which is from Isaiah and would have been a perfectly fine answer.

The best Bible moment came when Sen. Clinton cited the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” she said. “I think it’s a good rule for politics, too.” It was a warm touch from the woman who has been videotaped saying, “When you are attacked you have to deck your opponent.”

Throughout the debate, Sen. Clinton relied on her now-standard laugh/cackle when asked questions she didn’t like, which was most questions. But she wasn’t laughing when she learned that she had been hit with the gotcha question of the night, and perhaps of the campaign to this point.

“I want to move to another subject, and this involves a comment that a guest on ‘Meet the Press’ made,” Russert said. “I want to read it, as follows: ‘Imagine the following scenario. We get lucky. We get the number three guy in al Qaeda. We know there’s a big bomb going off in America in three days and we know this guy knows where it is. Don’t we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.’”

Russert asked the candidates to comment. Obama said he wouldn’t torture the prisoner under any circumstances. So did Sen. Joseph Biden. Then Russert turned to Sen. Clinton. “Should there be a presidential exception to allow torture in that kind of situation?” he asked.

“You know, Tim, I agree with what Joe and Barack have said,” Clinton answered. “As a matter of policy it cannot be American policy, period….These hypotheticals are very dangerous because they open a great big hole in what should be an attitude that our country and our president takes toward the appropriate treatment of everyone. And I think it’s dangerous to go down this path.”

Russert then delivered the punch line. “The guest who laid out this scenario for me with that proposed solution was William Jefferson Clinton last year,” Russert said to Sen. Clinton. “So he disagrees with you.”

“Well, he’s not standing here right now,” Clinton said.

“So there is a disagreement?”

“Well, I’ll talk to him later,” she answered.

The crowd laughed; Clinton had handled the situation as best she could. But Russert’s question zeroed in on her frequent citations of her husband, and his administration, and her part in his administration, among the reasons she is qualified to be president. What are the differences between them?

There would be no answer Wednesday night. And after all the odd and sometimes perplexing answers, there weren’t any winners, either.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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