Ballot Box

The Des Moines Debate

Scorecards and stinkers from the Democrats in Iowa.

Notes from Monday’s MSNBC debate in Des Moines, Iowa:

Democratic Disease No. 1: Half a loaf is worse than nothing. “Nothing’s been done on health care for a long time in the Congress,” Howard Dean complains. “And that is why it is time for new leadership in this country and in this party.” So, Republicans put together a Medicare bill that does something for prescription drugs, and how many Democrats in this debate endorse it? Zero.

Democratic Disease  No. 2: Fiscal responsibility is un-Democratic. “Gov. Dean raised prescription costs for seniors in his state when he needed to balance the budget. He called himself a ‘balanced-budget freak,’ ” protests John Kerry. On Medicare, Kerry tries to spin Dean: “Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor? Because that’s a cut.”

Democratic Disease No. 3: Zero-sum populism. Kerry inquires suspiciously, “If the drug companies win, who’s losing? It’s the seniors!”

Democratic Disease No. 4: It’s our fault tyrants tyrannize. Moderator Tom Brokaw points out how uncooperative Kim Jong-il has been in arms-control negotiations. In response, Dennis Kucinich implies that Bush is to blame for frightening Kim. “I will go and meet with Kim,” says Kucinich. “I will set forth a whole new doctrine for this United States, taking us away from unilateralism and preemption and toward cooperation.”

Democratic Disease No. 5: Bogus foreign policy platitudes. Kucinich urges immediate withdrawal from Iraq, reasoning, “If it was wrong to go in, it’s wrong to stay in.”

Dean Scorecard No. 1: Foreign policy. At Brokaw’s invitation, Kerry throws a punch at Dean: “Experience is a very important and critical issue in our ability to challenge George Bush in the time of war.” Dean’s retort: “Senator Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs. His experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade Iraq. … I don’t think that’s the kind of experience we need in foreign affairs in the White House.” Ouch. Round One to Dean.

Dean Scorecard No. 2: Race relations. Dean finally gets it right: “Don Payne, who’s … a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from New Jersey, told me once that he thought Southern white males were the most under-represented people in Congress, because they vote for conservative right-wing Republicans. … We have to make people understand that what we have in common is the economic problems of this country that face both African-American, white, and Latino working people. …They need health insurance and decent health care, and they need jobs.” Color of the person quoted by Dean: black. Description of Southern white males: “Southern white males.” References to Confederate flag: Zero.

Dean Scorecard No. 3: Draft-dodging. Brokaw asks, “You took letters and an X-ray to your draft board because you had an unfused vertebra in your back. But then you went skiing … Why take the letter?” Dean replies, “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. … I told the truth. I fulfilled my obligation.” Stink factor: High. Clintonesque interpretation of duty, compounded by excuse-making distortions about opponents (Gephardt served in the National Guard; Edwards was too young to be drafted *).

Says little but looks good: Kerry. Somebody seems to have removed his pole. He talks like a normal human being, which is doubly difficult since he appears by remote feed. Demotion from the front of the pack has been good for his character.

Looks so-so but says a lot: Wes Clark. He starts out cold, then catches fire as the discussion shifts to foreign affairs. Best summary of the case against Bush: “We’re not safer with half our Army and $150 billion and Americans dying every day in Iraq. That is not the centerpiece of the war on terror.” Closest thing yet to a confession of his Iraq equivocation: “This party’s making a great mistake by trying to make a litmus test on who would have or did or didn’t vote for that resolution last October.” Best closing statement: “We see the ads trying to strip us of our patriotism and our ability to hold our president accountable. … I’m the only person on the stage who’s led major forces in an alliance in war. And I’m the only person here who’s negotiated or helped to negotiate an agreement to end a war. I am the candidate who can stand with George W. Bush and win this election.”

Second most shameful statement delivered as a boast: Carol Moseley Braun. “There was a reason I was designated the ‘ethanol queen’ when I was in the Senate.”

Most shameful statement delivered as a boast: Al Sharpton on his baseless charge that a New York prosecutor raped Tawana Brawley: “Jessica Lynch said something didn’t happen to her, and this administration believes it. I believe in a girl that said something did happen to her. I’d like to have that debate with George Bush.”

Third-bravest hard truth: Clark on free trade and job losses. “Canceling NAFTA and WTO will not solve the problem.”

Second-bravest hard truth: Clark on pulling out of Iraq. “The U.N. is not willing or able to go into Iraq right now.”

Bravest hard truth: Braun on gay marriage. “We should be celebrating the fact that these people are talking about forming solid relationships, families, because families, in the end, will keep the community stable. … Civil unions falls short. … We ought to allow people of the same sex to legitimate their relationships.”

Fourth-fishiest statement: Gephardt. “That’s what we did in the middle ‘90s at the federal level. We got the budget in balance. We even supplied a surplus. … We built jobs. We raised the minimum wage. We did a variety of things to get the economy to grow.”

Third-fishiest statement: Clark. “We have an American president who visits the families of bereaved Britons and won’t visit our own families in this country.”

Second-fishiest statement: Edwards. “If you’re a child in a middle-class family this decade, it is more likely your parents will go into bankruptcy than that your parents will divorce.”

Fishiest statement: Gephardt. “I’ve seen the people [in Mexico and China]. They live in worse conditions than most farm animals in Iowa.”

Addendum, Nov. 26, 2003:Readers have pointed out that Edwards turned 18 in June 1971, while the Vietnam draft was still going on. However, according to the Selective Service System Web site, men born in 1953, as Edwards was, were not exposed to the draft lottery until February 1972—and that lottery, the last of the war, “was conducted for men who would have been called in 1973; however, no new draft orders were issued after 1972.” Return  to the sentence.