DETROIT—I suspected tonight’s debate wouldn’t go well when I saw the sign that welcomes visitors as they enter the Fox Theatre, where the nine Democratic candidates faced off. “Detroit’s Finest Entertainment,” it read. It can’t be a good omen, I thought, when the first thing you see before a political contest is an exaggeration—or more accurately, a lie. (Then again, after the Tigers’ season and with the way the Lions are playing, Detroit is pretty starved for competitive entertainment.) The debate ended with a similar misstatement, when Joe Lieberman thanked everyone involved for “a great debate.” In truth, this was the worst of the presidential debates that I’ve attended. The candidates were lackluster, and a good chunk of the press corps was inattentive and distracted. In a night filled with hilariously uncontroversial statements, my favorite was Dick Gephardt’s “We need peace in the world, not terrorism.”
The only candidates to have even a decent night were Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton (with the addendum that, when none of the serious contenders has a good night, front-running Howard Dean does well simply because the status quo doesn’t change). Braun fired off one of the better lines of the early part of the debate, after moderator Gwen Ifill apologized to her and Dennis Kucinich for not asking them a question yet. In a reference to the back-and-forth bickering among the other candidates, Braun replied, “That’s just because nobody’s mad at us.” She managed to elude a question about her unwise decision to visit Nigeria’s dictatorial regime while she was a U.S. senator by appealing to her trailblazing status: “As the only African-American in the United States Senate, it was not inappropriate for me to visit countries in Africa.” And she had the cleverest closing statement, calling herself the candidate who is “the clearest alternative to George W. Bush. I don’t look like him, I don’t talk like him, I don’t act like him, I don’t think like him.”
More important, however, Braun continues to be the candidate who best elucidates why it’s coherent to have opposed the Iraq war but to support the country’s rebuilding and the continuing presence of American troops. “We blew the place up; we have to fix it back,” she said, echoing a theme she’s returned to in each debate about the moral responsibilities of those who wage war. To my ear, Braun’s dovish lucidity on this subject is a harsher rebuke to John Kerry and John Edwards (the two candidates who voted for the congressional war resolution but voted against the president’s subsequent $87 billion request) than the similar critique offered by the hawkish Joe Lieberman. Braun doesn’t have a prayer of becoming the next president of the United States, but the campaign she’s waging to rehabilitate her reputation is proceeding nicely.
As for Sharpton, he was, well, Sharpton. He reeled off several of the best one-liners (though John Kerry appears to be trying to rise to Sharpton’s comedic challenge), including a description of the coming fall campaign as a “battle between the Christian right and the right Christians.” During the debate’s “conventional wisdom round,” when Ifill asked the candidates to defend themselves against their media caricatures, Sharpton fared the best by turning his provocateur-who-is-not-taken-seriously image to his advantage. Speaking to a largely African-American audience, Sharpton declared, “In America, many of us are not taken seriously. … They don’t take us seriously collectively.” It was the night’s most effective parry. Then again, the most ominous statement of the night was Fox News questioner Carl Cameron’s reference to “the coming Sharpton economy.”
As for everyone else, Kucinich was irrelevant, and Clark, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman circled each other like boxers taking a breather during a bout’s middle rounds. It wasn’t fine, and it wasn’t entertainment.