Ballot Box

The South Carolina Debate

Twigs, idears, and Benedict Arnold come to Dixie.

John “Twiggy” Kerry

Notes from Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Greenville, S.C.:

1. Kerry in the South. The most important exchange happened in the first minute, when moderator Tom Brokaw told viewers John Kerry had “made three speeches in New Hampshire in which, to a lot of people in the South, it appears that you were kissing off this region. … How can you come South, given what you said about the Democrats making a mistake in spending too much time worrying about the South?” The question was bad enough for Kerry, but his answer was worse: “I never said Democrats made a mistake. I never said that at all. I was asked a question about the mathematics of election, and I answered a question about the mathematics with respect to Al Gore’s election.”

Never said they made a mistake? Here are Kerry’s exact words in a Jan. 24 appearance at Dartmouth College, as reported by ABC News: “Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South. Al Gore proved he could have been president of the United States without winning one Southern state, including his own.”

Hoping to patch up his gaffe, Kerry repeatedly referred during the debate to his top South Carolina supporters, Sen. Fritz Hollings and Rep. Jim Clyburn. He alluded to his military service and tried to talk like a country boy. But Hollings and Clyburn weren’t onstage to advise Kerry that his usual denunciation of “Benedict Arnold” companies wouldn’t make as much sense in the South. Nor were they able to warn him that his critique of President Bush’s job-training funds—”That’s like kickin’ down the barn door and saying, ‘Here are some twigs, rebuild it’ “—might sound less fake with the word “sticks” instead of “twigs.”

2. Edwards vs. Kerry. I counted four attempts by John Edwards to embarrass Kerry without leaving fingerprints. The first was when Edwards piled on to Brokaw’s initial question. Edwards noted that Democrats had never captured the presidency without winning at least five Southern states. He said Americans deserved “a president that people in the South and all across the country believe represents them.” Edwards scored with this hit, mostly by exposing the fact that Kerry was talking about the South purely as an election-year consideration.

Edwards’ next shot came after Kerry affirmed that “there has been an exaggeration” of the threat of terrorism. Kerry was talking about Iraq, but Edwards made it sound as though Kerry had blown off terrorism altogether. “It’s just hard for me to see how you can say there’s an exaggeration when thousands of people lost their lives on September the 11th,” said Edwards. On this swing, Edwards overreached and missed.

The third shot came after Kerry outlined his ideas on job training. “What John just said about that’s exactly right,” Edwards began, giving the appearance of comity.

But I want to say that this is personal to me. You know, 40 miles from here, when I was born 50 years ago, my parents brought me home to a mill village, to a textile mill village. I have seen this my entire life growing up. I’ve seen mills close, I’ve seen what it does to communities, I’ve seen what it does to families. And all this talk among politicians in Washington about, “We’re going to get you a job retraining program, we’re going to make sure that we give you the transportation to get to a new job”—say that to a 50- or 55-year-old man who’s been supporting his family his entire life working in a mill.

That punch landed, making Edwards look a real person and making Kerry look like an out-of-touch politician. Edwards kept his hands clean by praising Kerry at the outset and directing his criticism to “politicians in Washington.” But Edwards’ fourth ploy—distinguishing himself as a bearer of “new, fresh ideas”—was neither effective nor fresh. There’s nothing staler in politics than “new ideas.”

3. The Dean shakeup. Brokaw’s third question did as much damage to Howard Dean as his first did to Kerry. To run his campaign, Brokaw reminded Dean, “You brought in somebody from Washington, D.C., who was in the Clinton White House, promised he wouldn’t go to work as a lobbyist, then immediately went to work as a lobbyist. He is a quintessential Washington insider.” Dean pleaded that his new hire, Roy Neel, a former chief of staff to Al Gore, “never lobbied and kept faith with his ethics pledge.” But according to the New York Times, when Neel left the Clinton-Gore administration, he “became president of the United States Telephone Association, where he lobbied for independent telephone companies including the Baby Bells.” For Dean, the problem isn’t just an ethics pledge. The problem is that he defined his campaign as an uprising against the “Washington Democrats,” and now he’s putting one of them in charge. That’s lethal.

4. Dean vs. Kerry. Dean’s slugs at Kerry were characteristically unsubtle. Twice, he accused Kerry and other members of Congress of failing to solve various problems. The better choice for president, Dean argued, was an executive who had delivered health care and other services. But twice, without rancor, Kerry landed a more effective counterpunch. “One of the things that you need to know as a president is how things work in Congress if you want to get things done,” Kerry observed. The audience laughed appreciatively.

5. Clark’s Iraq mess. Four months after Wes Clark issued contradictory accounts of his position on the Iraq war resolution, he still can’t get his story straight. According to the Associated Press, on Oct. 9, 2002, just before Congress passed the resolution, “Clark said he supports a congressional resolution that would give President Bush authority to use military force against Iraq, although he has reservations about the country’s move toward war.” In September 2003, Clark first said he would have supported the resolution, then said he wouldn’t have. Finally, in what was supposed to be the coherent, cleaned-up version of his position, Clark’s press secretary suggested to him in the presence of reporters, “You said you would have voted for the resolution as leverage for a U.N.-based solution.” To that, Clark replied, “Right. Exactly.”

But Thursday night, Clark said, “There should never have been a congressional authorization for the president to have a blank check to take this country to war, because everybody knew that’s what he intended to do. And they knew what the timetable was.” In other words, Clark knew in October 2002 that the resolution wouldn’t have served as leverage for a U.N.-based solution, because Bush intended to use it to go to war anyway. Which leaves Clark back in the position of trying to explain what the Clark of October 2002 was thinking, now that the Clark of January 2004 has discredited the Clark of September 2003.

Now for the awards.

Worst question. Brokaw to Clark: “Should there be, in your judgment, some kind of a compromise so people who believe in the Ten Commandments, or people of the Jewish faith …” (I don’t know what kind of Jews they have in South Dakota, but everywhere I’ve been, people of the Jewish faith are people who believe in the Ten Commandments.)

Highest bid. Dennis Kucinich: “A system where everybody is cared for, where all medically necessary procedures are covered, plus vision care, plus dental care, plus mental health care, plus long-term care, plus a prescription drug benefit. That’s what I offer.”

Quickest backflip. Joe Lieberman, who sucked up to New Hampshire by living in that state until Tuesday: “Don’t just be an echo of New Hampshire.”

Most pious overreaction. Brokaw: “It’s a tragedy to lose the jobs here in South Carolina, but if you go to Illinois or California or the Great Plains, and people go to Wal-Mart or Costco … they kind of like those prices. They’ve gotten used to the idea of not paying as much for shoes or shirts or clothing or any other number of items because they are manufactured offshore.” Kucinich: “Well, that presumes that people of this country do not have a social consciousness.”

Worst comb-over. Lieberman, on the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “Saddam Hussein himself was a weapon of mass destruction.”

Best Clinton impersonation. Edwards: “We need to start by recognizing the pain … the pain that these families are in.”

Biggest messiah complex. Kucinich: “My presidency will be to take these hands and to put them on the country to help heal America.”

Best pronunciation. Edwards: Awl (the black stuff that comes out of the ground).

Worst pronunciation. Dean: Idear (the thing that comes into your head).

Best line. Al Sharpton: “As far as Mr. Bush saying that he doesn’t need a permission slip from the U.N., he doesn’t think he needs votes from the American people to be president.”