Just about everybody did well in this debate, much better than in last week's debate in Albuquerque, N.M. Joe Lieberman was fiery (he even drowned out a heckler), Dennis Kucinich sounded almost sane, and John Edwards finally talked and laughed like one of those regular people he keeps claiming to represent. But the most important performances were turned in by John Kerry and Howard Dean.
Kerry was as lively as Kerry gets. He'll never convince viewers like me, who find him stiff and absurdly formal, that he isn't stiff and absurdly formal. But that problem is superficial, and we can get over it. Kerry's more fundamental problem is his tendency to try to have everything both ways, chiefly by rigging his answers with caveats. He approaches political questions the way soldiers approach urban warfare: He never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out.
Tonight, however, Kerry took a holiday from his inner political consultant. He said what he thought. To a question about sending more U.S. troops to Iraq, he replied, "No, we do not need or want more American troops to do that." To a question about approving Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said that if Bush didn't answer certain questions satisfactorily, "I'd be prepared to vote no." After one of the debate's panelists said Kerry hadn't given a "straightforward answer" to a question about Bush's candor on Iraq, Kerry responded, "The reason I can't tell you to a certainty whether the president misled us is because I don't have any clue what he knew about it or whether he was just reading what was put in front of him." In these and other answers, Kerry was clear, candid, and matter-of-fact. His only relapse into convolution was when he said of his vote for the Iraq war resolution, "If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president." Kerry went on to say something unintelligible, which sounded like the beginning of an attempt to explain how voting to authorize war was necessary to stop it. I'd love to hear the rest.
Howard Dean's performance was near-perfect. Strategically, Dean is way ahead of the pack. He has fulfilled the affirmative part of the campaign: giving people enough reasons to vote for him. Now he has the luxury of focusing on the negative part: dispelling the reasons to vote against him. Accordingly, his preparation for the last two debates seems to have focused on acting presidential and conveying competence in military and foreign policy. Tonight he accomplished both. He was at ease and in command. Rectifying his performance in Albuquerque, he projected confidence without constipation.
Dean started by answering an Iraq question with references to North Korea, Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists, and Bush's 18-month absence from the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. As in Albuquerque, he repeatedly emphasized presidential "judgment." To head off soft-on-defense charges, he said he wouldn't withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq immediately, since "we cannot lose the peace." He even steered his closing statement away from the economy to defense. That's a highly unconventional maneuver for a Democratic governor seeking the presidency during a recession. But it's consistent with Dean's current strategy of shoring up his weak suits rather than playing his strong ones.
The big test came half an hour into the debate, when panelist Juan Williams asked Dean whether his recent comments about not taking sides between Israel and the Palestinians signaled an intention to curb U.S. support for Israel. "Of course I don't mean any such thing," Dean replied. In previous debates, Dean has gotten angry and defensive in answering such questions. This time, he was cool as a cucumber, laying out his case that the United States must be "a credible negotiator" to the Palestinians as well.
Williams turned to Joe Lieberman, who proceeded to accuse Dean of betraying American values and interests by walking away from the U.S. alliance with Israel, specifically by saying that Israel must dismantle many settlements in the West Bank. Dean's response was perfect. "I'm disappointed in Joe," he said, more in sorrow than in anger. "My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's." Lieberman, who was standing next to Dean, interjected that this wasn't true, but Dean, without turning to Lieberman or raising his voice, politely continued, "Excuse me, Joe. I didn't interrupt you, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt me." Dean proceeded to make his case for an "honest broker" role, concluding, without rancor, "It doesn't help, Joe, to demagogue this issue. We're all Democrats. We need to beat George Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East."
In some ways, the exchange encapsulated the massive shift that has taken place during the campaign. If the candidates had debated a year ago, Lieberman would have been the heir apparent, and Dean would have been the one fighting for attention. Dean would have done the attacking, and Lieberman would have shaken his head in disappointment at such demagoguery. Surely, Lieberman would have concluded with the same plea to unite the party against Bush. Oh, well. Live by the olive branch, die by the olive branch.