Ballot Box

The Iowa Debate

Highlights and lowlights.

Can you trust a vegetarian?

Having written about Howard Dean for the last three weeks, I’m going to give readers a break and cover highlights from all the candidates in this debate. I’ll assess Dean’s performance tomorrow. (To read the scorecard on Dean, click here.)

The most useful thing about this encounter was that each participant who had a snowball’s chance of winning the nomination cited at least one issue on which he’s distinct from nearly everybody else in the field. Here’s the list.

Dean: “I opposed the Iraq war. With the exception of Dennis [Kucinich] and Carol [Moseley Braun], everybody else supported it.” Unchallenged.

John Edwards: “[I propose] doing something I don’t think anyone else up here does: raise the capital gains rate for those who make over $300,000 a year.” Unchallenged.

Dick Gephardt: “Everybody up here except Dennis voted for NAFTA and voted for the China [trade] agreement. They did the wrong thing. … I’m the only one who has led on this issue for over 20 years.” Challenged by Edwards.

John Kerry: “I am the only presidential candidate who has offered a plan that actually reduces health-care costs for the 163 million Americans in the workplace who get their health care through work.” Challenged by Edwards.

Joe Lieberman: “I’m the only candidate up here who goes beyond the existing tax cuts and would give 98 percent of the taxpayers a new income tax cut.” Unchallenged.

Now for the awards.

Worst question. Moderator Paul Anger to Kucinich: “Given your personal decision not to consume animal products, how can you assure livestock producers you will be an advocate for them as president?” (Hypothetical follow-up to Lieberman: “Given your personal decision not to accept Jesus as your savior, how can you assure Christians you will be an advocate for them as president?”)

Second-best question. Panelist Michele Norris to Lieberman. “Why does the nation spend 10 times as much on people of your generation than on your grandchildren?”

Best question. Norris to Dean: “A hallmark of your campaign has been the pledge to repeal the Bush tax cuts across the board. Does this include tax cuts that are intended to provide some measure of relief for the middle class—the child tax credit or the lifting of the marriage penalty? And specifically, what kind of tax relief are you proposing for middle-class and working-class families?”

Second-most shameless pander. Gephardt: “[Dean] kind of runs against all of us in Washington and says that we haven’t done anything. I guess I’ve got a question for him: Is he saying that [Iowa Sen.] Tom Harkin has never done anything good?”

Most shameless pander. Gephardt: “A state like Iowa is already undercompensated for Medicare. I have a bill with [Iowa Rep.] Leonard Boswell, who is here today, to try to correct that problem.”

Second-most craven answer. Anger: “Roger Lansky, Senator, of New Hampton, Iowa, wants to know whether you would change what he calls the ‘subsidy mentality’ of the farm program to a market-based program.” Lieberman: “First, let me say that agriculture is just a critical part of American economic life and American history and American life. Secondly, the 2002 farm bill, which Sen. Harkin was a lead sponsor of, and I supported, improved the previous program of Freedom of Farm with a series of countercyclical subsidies that I think are appropriate. So right now I would say no.”

Most craven answer. Norris: “Why does the nation spend 10 times as much on people of your generation than on your grandchildren?” Lieberman: “The answer to this is not to cut back on aid for seniors. The answer … is to cut back on the Bush tax cuts for the high income and for corporations. …”

Bravest answer. Anger: “How do you ensure national security if you succeed in your plan to cut the defense budget by 10 percent?” Kucinich: “Well, actually, I called for the defense budget to be cut by 15 percent.”

Best answer. Panelist David Yepsen: “I talked to a lot of Democrats who say they really like what you have to say, but they don’t think you’re electable.” Kucinich: “Well, you know, I’m electable if you vote for me.”

Second-biggest stretch. Edwards: “I have been preparing for this fight my entire life. I fought in courtrooms for 20 years for you.”

Biggest stretch. Lieberman: “To change the subject as Howard does and to say that we haven’t obliterated all terrorism with Saddam in prison is a little bit like saying somehow that we weren’t safer after the Second World War after we defeated Nazism and Hitler because Stalin and the communists were still in power.”*

Cheapest shot. Kerry to Dean: “You’ve said that we have to prepare for the day when America isn’t the strongest military.” (Dean never said this was desirable or imminent.)

Worst slander. Gephardt: “I’m proud of what we’ve done to fight back against the Bush administration. They tried to put more arsenic in the water.”

Most surprising candor. Edwards: “Everybody on this stage is talking about spending money. They’re talking about spending money on education. They’re talking, in varying degrees, about spending money on health care. … There is a tension between spending money and reducing the federal deficit.”

Second most surprising moderation. Braun: “We can’t afford to go the route of just protectionism that will jump-start a depression. … To stand and tell the American people that protectionism will somehow or another keep jobs in this country is just not true.”

Most surprising moderation. Braun: “I opposed the war also, Dennis. But … we can’t just cut and run. We blew the place up. We have a responsibility to at least fix it back.”

Worst excuse. Kerry to Dean: “You’ve said that the president of the United States had prior warning about September 11th. You got it off the Internet; you passed it on to national television.” Dean: “You better go look what I said about Saudi Arabians tipping off the president. I said I didn’t believe it.”

Best excuse. Dean on why he won’t unseal all his gubernatorial records: “If somebody is gay and they write me that, and they don’t care to have that information disclosed to the public, that’s their right.”

Ugliest collision with a fact. Gephardt: “Everybody up here, except Dennis, voted for NAFTA and voted for the China agreement.” … Edwards: “I didn’t vote for NAFTA. I campaigned against NAFTA.” … Gephardt: “Well, John, you weren’t in Congress when NAFTA came up, so you couldn’t vote.” … Edwards: “But you just said I voted for it.” Gephardt: “I understand.” Edwards: “You understand?” (Laughter.)

Least falsifiable argument. Dean: “Sen. Lieberman said that we were safer now that Saddam has been caught; I beg to differ. … We now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace.” (If fighter jets weren’t escorting airliners, Dean would use it to make the same point.)

Worst use of first-name basis. Dean: “I was asked yesterday by Newsweek what would I do if I was the president and the troops had Osama in their sights.”

Worst use of French. Dean: “I have a lot of friends from the South. In the South, people do integrate religion openly, easily into their lives, both black Southerners and white Southerners. I understand that if I’m going to campaign for the presidency of the United States, I have to be comfortable in the milieu that other Americans are comfortable.”

Correction, Jan. 6, 2004: I originally quoted Joe Lieberman as saying, “To change the subject as Howard does and to say that we haven’t obliterated all terrorism with Saddam in prison is a little bit like saying somehow that we weren’t safer after the Second World War after we defeated Nazism and Hitler.” I inadvertently failed to include the end of the sentence: “because Stalin and the communists were still in power.” It was about 4 in the morning when I cut and pasted the quote. I thought I had included the Stalin part. Thanks to reader John Tabin for pointing out that I hadn’t. (Return to the corrected item.)