Notes from Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate in Durham, N.H.:
1. Ted Offensive. This was Ted Koppel’s worst performance as a moderator. You can forgive him for experimenting with a couple of questions about the horse race. But when the experiment failed and he persisted, that’s on him. When he asked inside-baseball questions and got substantive answers instead, he chided the candidates for failing to stoop to his level. First he asked John Kerry why Howard Dean couldn’t beat President Bush. Kerry talked instead about why he would make the best president. Koppel then turned to Dick Gephardt and said, “I’m not really asking you—at least, I wasn’t then—whether you think you’re the better candidate. I was simply asking you whether you thought that Howard Dean could beat George W. Bush.” Later, Koppel asked Carol Moseley Braun whether Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean would make blacks loyal to Dean. Braun talked instead about what Democrats should stand for. Koppel then said, “Sen. Edwards, what I was trying to get to with Ambassador Braun was whether loyalty can, in any way, be transferred by an endorsement.” Edwards wisely ignored the question as well.
For arrogance, it’s hard to top this exchange:
Koppel: This is a question to Ambassador Braun, Rev. Sharpton, Congressman Kucinich. You don’t have any money, or at least not much …Dennis Kucinich: We’ve raised $4.5 million. I mean, that’s not nothing. Koppel: You’ve got about $750,000 in the bank right now, and that’s close to nothing when you’re coming up against this kind of opposition. But let me finish the question. The question is, will there come a point when polls, money, and then ultimately the actual votes … when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out?
Kucinich and Kerry chastised Koppel for his obsession with polls, but he wouldn’t let up. He derided the poorer candidates and asked John Edwards why he was falling short of “expectations.” These were the last 90 debating minutes of the year—a crucial opportunity for every candidate other than Dean—and Koppel wasted 30 of those minutes on questions barely worthy of aides in bars. At the end, he congratulated himself, instructing the candidates, “What you need every once in a while is someone up here who ticks you off a little bit. You’re much better when you’re angry.” The candidates then went to the spin room and practically barfed about the questions they’d been asked.
2. Gore backlash. Gore’s endorsement of Dean united the other candidates in defiance. “This race is not over until the votes have been cast and counted,” Kerry vowed. Al Sharpton accused Gore of “bossism” for implying that Dean’s opponents should quit. “The Republicans have coronations. We have campaigns,” said Edwards. Wesley Clark issued the most pointed rebuke: “To quote another former Democratic leader, I think elections are about the people, not about the powerful.”
But Dean scolded his rivals: “Don’t attack Al Gore. Al Gore worked too hard in 2000. … I don’t think he deserves to be attacked by anybody up here. … He’s a fundamentally decent human being. We share a lot of values.” This is why Gore’s anointment of Dean is so devastating: Any candidate who objects to it can be depicted by Dean as an enemy of Gore and the millions who voted for him.
3. Clinton/Lieberman/Clark vs. Gore/Dean. The campaign is beginning to clarify the Democratic Party’s fault lines. Tonight, Joe Lieberman embraced the “Clinton transformation,” which he defined as military strength, fiscal responsibility, values, middle-class tax cuts, and collaboration with business to create jobs. Then Lieberman delivered the most important line of the evening: “Howard Dean—and now Al Gore, I guess—are on the wrong side of each of those issues.” Boom! Just like that, Gore-Lieberman is splitsville, and Lieberman is trying to take Bill Clinton with him.
And Dean is helping. Dean said of Gore, “We both believe that the Bush tax cuts are grossly irresponsible, and they ought to be reversed. We both believe the war in Iraq was put forward on the American people unjustly.” Indeed, Gore has repudiated the war far more emphatically than Clinton has. Do Gore and Clinton agree with Dean that all the Bush tax cuts should be repealed, including the parts that went to the middle class? I haven’t checked it out yet, but I’m betting that Gore agrees and Clinton doesn’t.
Clark, the candidate widely regarded as Clinton’s favorite, chimed in on Lieberman’s side of the military question: “The time has passed in America when this party can be the party of compassion and let the executive branch run foreign policy. It won’t work. We have to be the party that can stand toe to toe with George W. Bush on national security.”
This was the big story of the night. Dean can’t afford to have Gore’s endorsement of him become more evidence that he’s a left-winger. He has to patch up the Clinton-Gore rift. If he wins the nomination, he’ll almost certainly have to name a running mate from the Clinton wing.
4. Dean/Clark vs. Kucinich/Sharpton. Here’s where Dean’s rehabilitation starts. He repeated tonight that U.S. troops must remain in Iraq because an Iraq infested by al-Qaida or run by Shiite fundamentalists would imperil U.S. security. Kucinich and Sharpton attacked Dean’s answer, arguing that no unjust invasion could lead to a justifiable occupation. Clark, however, sided implicitly with Dean, explaining that although the war was a blunder, “An early exit means either retreat or defeat. Neither one is acceptable.” By embracing Clark and rejecting Kucinich, Dean can link himself to the Clinton wing.
5. Dean’s whoppers. Armed with Gore’s endorsement, Dean looked confident and relaxed. He smiled at himself after a verbal slip. He looked down at his podium studiously and took notes while others criticized him, instead of staring dumbly ahead, as he did in previous debates. His most interesting line was a complaint that Bush “personalizes policy difference, and that is a fatal mistake when you’re running … a state or a country.” Isn’t Dean famous for personalizing policy differences?
Dean’s problem is that his fibs are increasingly conspicuous. He accused Koppel of spending the debate’s first 75 minutes on Iraq, a statement whose falsity was obvious to anyone who had watched from the beginning. Dean also blamed Fox News for having prompted him to talk about the “theory” that Bush had been warned beforehand about 9/11, when in fact Dean had broached that idea on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Memo to Dean: Clean up your accuracy, or you’ll go the way of the guy who just endorsed you.
6. Wooden soldier. Clark has a great bio, the best ad of the campaign, and momentum in New Hampshire. His shtick of grabbing the nearest flag and talking about the buddies he buried under it wins huge applause everywhere he goes. But all of that will come to nothing if he can’t behave like a human being. He talks like a Clutch Cargo character: Nothing moves but his mouth. His head locks in one position, his gaze fixes in the distance, his eyebrows never rise, and he seldom blinks. He goes on and on without smiling. His arms move mechanically, like a marionette’s.
One exchange during this debate was particularly painful. Koppel asked Clark about the possibility of Clinton endorsing him. “I really have never even thought about that,” said Clark. “Oh, sure you have,” Koppel replied knowingly. “No, I haven’t,” Clark insisted. Everyone laughed, but Clark didn’t even smile. He couldn’t see why anyone thought it was funny. A for honesty, F for human relations.
Clark wanted to deliver a canned line about Gore’s endorsement of Dean, so he continued: “To quote another former Democratic leader, I think elections are about the people, not about the powerful.” Clark paused, evidently awaiting laughter or applause. He got none, so he explained the joke: “I think there was a man named Al Gore who once said that.” Koppel grunted something, and that was all the acknowledgment Clark got. He stared like an android who had just been gonged.
7. Feel the love. For whatever reason—debate fatigue, Dean’s inevitability, Koppel’s irksome questions, the Christmas spirit—the candidates were unusually kind to each other. Kerry praised Lieberman’s loyalty and expressed surprise that Gore hadn’t reciprocated it. Gephardt said all the Democrats were united against Bush. Dean said Edwards was right about something. Kerry said Dean was right about something else. Dean clapped and smiled at Kerry’s rebuke of Koppel. Kerry effused, “I love John Edwards.” Edwards credited Gephardt with bringing up an important issue. Gephardt nodded as Edwards spoke. Edwards said Dean was right about something. Clark said Dean was right about something else. Maybe this was what Koppel hoped to accomplish by annoying them all. That’s what I’d be saying in the spin room, if I were him.