Ballot Box

Carolina Panthers

The Democratic presidential race gets nasty.

After months of war in Iraq and peace among the Democratic presidential candidates, life has returned to normal: Iraq is at peace, and the Democrats are at war. Saturday night in South Carolina, the candidates stopped coddling each other and finally had a real debate. Of the various story lines, here are the three that struck me as most important.

1. Mean Dean. Howard Dean has come a long way by distinguishing himself as a confident, effective liberal. He’s managed that rare synthesis of candidate-who-says-what-he-believes and governor-who-gets-things-done. By doing so, he has avoided coming across as an unprincipled insider or as an unelectable wacko. In tonight’s debate, John Kerry continued to try to paint Dean as a wacko for conceding that the United States “won’t always have the strongest military.” I doubt Kerry will succeed, mostly because the quote is too abstract to change many votes in a Democratic primary. Dean’s other anti-war remarks are more vulnerable to attack. I just think Kerry picked the wrong one.

The greater risk for Dean is that his confidence and liberal purity could curdle into arrogance. Early in the debate, he wisely ducked moderator George Stephanopoulos’ invitations to extend his feud with Kerry. But when Kerry suggested that Dean’s predecessor had established the statewide Vermont health insurance coverage for which Dean was taking credit, Dr. Dean gave way to Mr. Snide. “I don’t know what figures you’re looking at, but it’s probably the same figures that you may have been looking at when you voted for your own $350 billion tax cut,” Dean scoffed. “That is the silliest.” Kerry smiled with satisfaction at Dean’s explosion. When Stephanopoulos invited the candidates to question each other, nearly all of them pitched softballs. Not Dean. He slammed Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman for insufficient opposition to tax cuts. In his closing remarks, Dean was the only candidate who constantly looked down at his notes, a strangely shifty posture for the field’s best ad-libber.

2. Smokin’ Joe. Joe Lieberman caused this debate to be delayed until sundown Saturday night. Now we know why. He was planning to smite his enemies and didn’t want to do it on the Sabbath. Right out of the box, he leapt into the Dean-Kerry fray, ripping both men. He called their feud a “squabble,” dismissed Dean as unelectable because of his anti-war position, and faulted Kerry for his “ambivalence” on the Iraq war. Kerry denied the charge, unconvincingly. Lieberman argued that neither of them was hawkish enough to beat Bush.

Lieberman didn’t stop there. He called Dick Gephardt’s health insurance tax-credit plan a “big-spending” non-starter. When Stephanopoulos asked about Lieberman’s too-nice-guy reputation, Lieberman pointed out that he had denounced Bill Clinton’s conduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and had slammed Hollywood for peddling sex and violence to kids. He also noted twice that he was the only candidate onstage who had supported both wars against Saddam Hussein. He concluded, “I am the one Democrat who can match George Bush in the areas where many think he’s strong—defense and moral values—and beat him where he’s weak, on the economy and his divisive, right-wing social agenda.”

Maybe Lieberman was just tailoring his message to South Carolina. But if he’s decided to stop muting his conservatism and start flaunting it, it’s about time. In a nine-person field, you have to attract some voters before you worry about alienating others. Dean has already passed that test; until tonight, Lieberman hadn’t. It was unclear why moderate-to-conservative Democrats should vote for Lieberman rather than Kerry or John Edwards. Now Lieberman has made that case. And in the process, he’s made a case for himself as the most electable candidate.

3. The Gephardt gang-up. This was the big story of the debate. Two weeks ago, Gephardt grabbed center stage and won praise for boldness and seriousness by proposing a massive ($200+ billion per year) subsidy program for workers’ health insurance through refundable tax credits to employers. Tonight, his momentum vanished in a gang attack by his opponents.

The first shark to take a bite out of Gephardt’s plan was Edwards, who accused the congressman of “taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pocket of working Americans” and “giving it to the biggest corporations.” He contrasted his own record of “fighting against big corporations” with Gephardt’s proposal to “trust corporate America to do what’s right for its workers.” The attack was so ferocious and seemingly out of the blue that Dean raised his eyebrows in dismay. But the blood was in the water. Lieberman leveled his “big spending” critique, Edwards returned for another bite (“The idea that this somehow will stimulate the economy is dependent on … giving that money to big corporate America and assuming they’re going to do the right thing. That sounds like Reaganomics to me”), and Kerry joined in, agreeing “with my friend John Edwards” that Gephardt was transferring money from workers to corporations.

On the merits, the attack strikes me as bogus. Gephardt made two solid points: 1) His plan requires companies to spend the whole subsidy on health insurance; and 2) if the subsidy didn’t extend to workers who already have employer-provided health insurance (thereby allowing those employers to spend the cost of that perk on something else), it would essentially punish those companies for having done the right thing.

Politically, however, the attack may prove devastating. Edwards is running as a man of the people, the first in his working-class family to go to college. So is Gephardt. If Edwards can label Gephardt a corporate lackey, he’ll have the heartland populist niche—maybe the best niche in the race—to himself. How the rap on Gephardt changed overnight from union lackey to corporate lackey is a mystery to me, but if Al Gore could make Bill Bradley look like an enemy of the welfare state, I suppose anything’s possible. The larger threat is that Edwards, like Gore, will score this tactical success in the primary at the price of strategic disaster in the general election. If Democrats sound like they’re more interested in fighting corporations than helping people, it won’t matter who won this debate.