The Democrats debate in Iowa.

The Democrats debate in Iowa.

The Democrats debate in Iowa.

Politics and policy.
May 19 2003 5:25 PM

Early Labor

The Democrats debate in Iowa.

This weekend, seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates appeared together at a "town-hall meeting" in Iowa, hosted by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. The candidates were too busy flirting with the union delegates to engage in the mutual sniping we saw in South Carolina two weeks ago. But they did try out a few new tricks. Here's a review of each contestant, in reverse alphabetical order.

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Al Sharpton. Credit him for opening the most interesting line of attack. "There's a misnomer," he said. "We're saying that Bush is cutting taxes. He's shifting taxes. Because when you have to pay more money for mass transit, when you have to pay more money for sales tax, that's a tax on working-class people. … Taxes have gone up all over this country." Other candidates picked up this refrain and extended it to Medicaid. It's a tricky argument, since Bush's fingerprints aren't on state and local tax hikes. But if voters start to make the connection, Bush could lose his image as a tax cutter.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Carol Moseley Braun. Her platform isn't catching on, so she's advertising her gender. Here's how she began her closing statement: "When reporters and other people ask me, 'What makes you different than the other candidates?' I have traditionally just responded with an answer about the economy or taxes or security or diplomacy or civil liberties—an answer about a program. But the fact of the matter is that the thing that makes me different is really the most obvious: I am a woman, and we do things differently. Women focus in on the harmony and security of the whole community."

Whoa. The idea that women are fundamentally different from men, especially in their preoccupation with harmony, is a major reason why many people are reluctant to vote for a woman. Is this a message female candidates want to send after 9/11?

Dennis Kucinich. Talk about the zeal of a convert. Three years ago, Kucinich's voting record earned a zero rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Now he's demanding a pro-choice litmus test: "It's going to be important for the next president of the United States to tell the American people that he or she will cause any appointee to have to answer on the question of Roe v. Wade, that there must be a litmus test on this question, and that no one should be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States unless they are ready to keep Roe v. Wade in place and protect a woman's right to choose."

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Really? Which of the 20 pro-life votes Kucinich cast in 1999 and 2000 does he now repudiate? And why should we believe him?

Bob Graham. He wins the Bob Dole Award for referring to oneself in the third person. ("Bob Graham is the most electable candidate.") But the headline is Graham's escalating accusations of deceit in the war on terror. He charged that Bush "has engaged in a cover-up of important information that will tell the American people what happened before 9/11, what's happened since 9/11, and who has yet to be held accountable for 3,000 deaths." The good news: Graham is no longer boring. The bad news: He's starting to sound slightly unhinged.

Dick Gephardt. He takes the prize for Most Shameless Bribe. To the AFSCME audience: "If you want to give a billion and a half dollars from the federal government to state and local government here in Iowa in the next three years, then I am your candidate."

John Edwards. He has picked up one of Bill Clinton's lines ("I will wake up every morning going to work for working people") and is trying to turn political issues into legal issues. He often boasts of working with John McCain on the patients' bill of rights. On Saturday, he twice proposed a "workers' and shareholders' bill of rights." Why does he make everything into a bill of rights? Because then you need a lawyer to defend it.

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Edwards also hammered Bush's pals for having "inherited, not earned" their wealth. He accused them of "hoarding" rather than "sharing" opportunity. The emphasis on inheritance is crucial, because while both Bush and Edwards are rich (in fact, Edwards is probably richer), Bush was born wealthy, and Edwards wasn't. You can see the outlines of a fascinating class-warfare debate taking shape, with Bush ripping parasitic lawyers and Edwards claiming to have "earned" his wealth by "sharing" it with needy clients.

Howard Dean. He held his tongue better here than in South Carolina, but he couldn't resist answering Graham's claim to be from the electable wing of the party. "I'm very proud to be a member of the Democratic wing" of the party, Dean replied. You can tell he's itching for a fight. "You have the power to take this party back," he told the crowd.

There's something profoundly true in Sharpton's critique of Bush's tax cuts. But there's something equally incongruous between that critique, which virtually all the Democrats embraced at this forum, and Dean's longstanding complaint about Bush's "unfunded mandates," which the candidates likewise echoed. If Bush can't give the states mandates without money, why should the Democrats give the states money without mandates? Isn't that what Gephardt, Edwards (who dangled a $50 billion offer), and their colleagues are proposing? If Delaware wants to raise teacher pay, why should Nebraskans foot the bill?

I'm all for aligning funding with mandates. But the deal has to go both ways.