Ballot Box

The Brown and Black Debate

Only six more pandering days until Iowa.

Dean’s highs and lows in the heartland

On Sunday, all the major Democratic presidential candidates except Wes Clark debated in the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum. Here are the awards.

Most important exchange: Howard Dean and debate co-host Maria Celeste Arraras. Arraras: “Would you wait, then, until you balance your budget to then go ahead with the middle-class tax cuts?” Dean: “That’s right.”

Most glaring sign of political vulnerability: Dean being attacked on tax cuts by Dennis Kucinich … from the right. Kucinich: “The tax cuts that are going to the people in the top brackets are the ones that ought to be canceled. We need to remember the working families still need a relief, Earned Income Tax Credit and other tax relief.”

Most dishonest pander: Dean, backing away from his four-year-old comment that the Iowa caucus system favors special interests. “Candidates like me couldn’t win without Iowa or New Hampshire, because it’s the only place that someone without a lot of money but with a good message can look people in the eye, and they can evaluate you and decide what kind of president you want to be.” (Imaginary truthful version: “People in any state with inexpensive media markets could screen candidates just as well. But because Iowa and New Hampshire currently go first, I can’t win without Iowa or New Hampshire.”)

Slickest pander: John Edwards. “One of the things that I have learned is the people of Iowa are very blunt and very direct.” (Edwards in New Hampshire a week earlier: “I’ve figured out that the people of New Hampshire are very direct.”)

Most gratuitous pander: First sentence of Dean’s closing statement. “January 19th is a celebration of Martin—Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.” (Pander-free version: First sentence of Al Sharpton’s closing statement, one minute later: “Martin Luther King’s mission was to change America.”)

Best answer to a pander: Sharpton, after Dean bragged about how many blacks and Latinos in Congress had endorsed him. “You only need co-signers if your credit is bad.”

Best euphemism: Dean. “When [Republicans] talk about divisive issues, we need to talk about education. … Instead of arguing about the things that they use to divide us, we need to talk about the things that everybody needs: jobs, education, and health care.” (Previous phrase Dean has replaced with “divisive issues”: “God, guns, and gays.”)

Worst visual moment: John Kerry. He strode boldly to the edge of the stage, only to back away when he realized that the stage lights hadn’t followed him.

Most outrageous statement: Sharpton. “We still have institutional discrimination in this country, which is worse than blatant discrimination. What is hurting us is that 50 years ago, we had to watch out for people with white sheets. Now they have on pinstripe suits.” (Worse than the Klan?)

Most surprising poise: Dean. He finally mastered the confidence to look his accuser in the eye without visible anger while being attacked. He even kept his cool when Sharpton challenged his openness to hiring blacks and Latinos, and he smiled appreciatively at Sharpton’s jab about “co-signers.”

Worst idea: Dick Gephardt. “One of my proposals that I’m very interested in is changing the percentage of federal contracts that go to minority contracts from 5 to 10 percent. This would do more to get capital into minority contractors and give people the opportunity that they need.” (I’m not sure which is worse: making it a quota or devoting it to minorities who own federal-contract-sized businesses instead of those who need help.)

Most surprising snap: Edwards to Carol Moseley Braun. “Are you gonna let me finish?” Some of the candidates look exhausted; the rest look exhausted and sick. Even Edwards, the sunniest of them, seems to be running a bit low on good humor.

Fakest attack: Kerry. “Gov. Dean has had it both ways [on Iraq]. On October 6th, five days before we voted in the Senate, Gov. Dean took a public position supporting the Biden-Lugar resolution, which gave authority to the president of the United States to go to war if he found that the diplomatic effort had been exhausted and all he had to do was write a letter.” (Are you kidding? Dean bet his whole campaign on opposition to the war. If the postwar had gone smoothly, Kerry would have called Dean soft on Saddam. In fact, Kerry has called him that. Kerry’s the flipper.)

Fakest stunt: Dean. When co-host Lester Holt invited him “to ask a question of one of your opponents,” Dean posed it to “a community activist who’s in the audience whose name is Ako Abdul-Samad. … I’ve spent two years listening to Iowans here in there caucuses and hearing their concerns and their needs. Can you tell us, Ako, what we ought to be doing to help your community?” When Holt reminded Dean that his campaign had agreed to pose its question to a candidate, Dean huffed, “Part of this campaign is about change, and it’s about letting ordinary people have something to say.” The whole thing was so canned, Dean couldn’t even suppress his smile.

Most creative argument: Edwards on tort reform. “What President Bush is proposing about this … shows his philosophy about everything. He doesn’t believe in democracy. He hates the idea that six or 12 ordinary Americans sitting in a jury box are going to be able to decide a case. … He hates the idea that his friends and his supporters are going to walk into a courtroom and be treated exactly the same way as a child or a family who have been the victims of fraud or abuse.”

Most intriguing air kiss: Dean on Edwards’ proposal to crack down on predatory lenders. “That was an excellent proposal that you laid out. … And I don’t know [that] there’s a lot I could do to improve it.” (What’s going on between these two guys? A pre-ticket snuggle? Or are the cynics right that Dean is trying to help Edwards pry votes from Gephardt?)