Thursday, September 25, 2003

Democrats visualize whirled peas. Shortly before today's Democratic presidential debate began in earnest, moderator Brian Williams explained the rather convoluted rules, an exercise that he described as the "eat-your-peas portion of the debate."

I'm tempted to observe that the entire two hours felt like pea-eating. But as General Wesley Clark's 1972 presidential candidate, Richard Nixon, once observed, that would be wrong!

With that, here are some random observations about the first debate to feature Clark, who's been anointed the instant co-frontrunner (along with Howard Dean) even though -- or, rather, because -- he's been in the race for only a little more than a week.

-- The format, featuring 60- and 30-second responses and lots of beeping timers, stunk, but it was probably unavoidable with 10 candidates to juggle.

It also hurt John Kerry more than anyone. Whether you think Kerry is thoughtful or evasive, the fact is that he answers questions in a ponderous, lugubrious style. He needs time to ease into a response. He got off a few decent shots at Dean -- especially over Dean's plan to repeal the entire Bush tax cut, which Kerry charges would hurt the middle class -- but, essentially, Kerry came off as a 40 mph candidate who'd accidentally meandered into the passing lane.

-- Clark's debut was anticlimactic. His answers were mild, tepid even, and never really veered from the surface of conventional Democratic thought. When Williams asked him whether if he would support President Bush's request for $87 billion in military and reconstruction funding in Iraq, he replied, "Brian, if I've learned one thing from my nine days in politics, you have to be careful with hypotheticals, and you just asked me one." It was a good line, it got a laugh, but it really wasn't a hypothetical.

Clark also failed to exploit his military background beyond a little rhetorical throat-clearing. In response to a question about Social Security, he made some sort of reference to having appreciated the program "when I was in the United States Army and trying to save $100 a month." It didn't make a lot of sense, but perhaps it worked on some subliminal level.

-- A simmering subplot was to get Howard Dean to blow his cool -- that is, if the perpetually seething candidate can be said to have a cool. The former Vermont governor showed a few flashes of anger (or "little flashes of disagreement," as he put it when prodded by Williams), but for the most part he held himself together -- even when accused by Dick Gephardt of having sided with Newt Gingrich on a massive Medicare cut in the mid 1990s. "You say you represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," Gephardt chided him. "I think you're just winging it."

"That is flat-out false, and I am ashamed that you would compare me to Newt Gingrich," Dean responded. But, rather than escalate, he pulled himself together and said, "We have to remember that the enemy here is George Bush, not each other."

Even so, Dean's retort gave an opening to Kerry, who observed -- correctly -- that Gephardt had not compared Dean to Gingrich, but had merely noted that Dean had supported Gingrich on a particularly odious proposal. "That's a policy difference," Kerry said.

Thus Dean proved he could handle being attacked without going ballistic, but still came off as something of a whiner.

-- John Edwards wants to be Bill Clinton, but he lacks Clinton's easy grace in front of the camera. When Edwards panders, everyone can see that he's pandering, which is why he'll never capture the Clinton magic.

For instance, he was asked if he would continue to support government subsidies to American farmers if it meant that it would worsen Third World poverty. Oh, yes he would! "We have to stand by our farmers," he replied. But then quickly added that he opposed subsidies to "millionaire farmers." Thanks for the clarification, Senator.

-- Joe Lieberman is as well-known as any of these candidates, but he seems unlikely to break through. He's just too conservative for a party whose liberal wing dominates in the primary season.

Lieberman defined his own problem at the end, when the candidates were asked to identify the most unpopular thing they would do as president. Lieberman responded that this was the first presidential debate he's participated in that he hasn't been booed.

-- Dennis Kucinich was passionate, Al Sharpton was funny, Carol Moseley Braun was thoughtful, and Bob Graham was avuncular. But none did anything to increase their chances of being taken seriously -- especially by the media, which are itching to knock this down to a three- or (at the most) four-candidate scrum ASAP.

But see for yourself. The rebroadcast on MSNBC starts in about 15 minutes.

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