A few thoughts from Thursday's Democratic presidential debate in New York City:
1. Clark's rookie act. Everybody wanted to find out how Wes Clark is in a debate. The answer is: slick. Slick enough that this had better be the last time he gets away with aw-shucksing that he can't answer this or that policy question in detail because he's a newcomer to politics. He began by taking a nasty splitter about his not-so-ancient Republican leanings and whacking it out of the park with a canned answer about the "journey" he has shared with other Americans, who started out liking Bush and have become disillusioned. He straddled the free trade question like a champ. ("We do better if we keep our borders open and we have reciprocal trade agreements. But I emphasize reciprocal.") He even used the rookie alibi to justify his evasion of a question about whether he would vote for President Bush's $87 billion Iraq request, on the distinctly non-rookie grounds that the question was "hypothetical."
2. Dean's poise. As he adjusts to front-runner status, Howard Dean has been trying to overcome his instinct to bite back when bitten. He was doing a great job early in this debate, smiling and looking relaxed as he fended off attacks from John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich on tax cuts, trade, and health care. "To listen to Sen. Lieberman, Sen. Kerry, Rep. Gephardt, I'm anti-Israel, I'm anti-trade, I'm anti-Medicare and I'm anti-Social Security," he joked in a there-they-go-again manner. "I wonder how I ended up in the Democratic Party."
Then, out of the blue, Dean snapped. He pre-emptively attacked Dick Gephardt on Social Security means-testing. Maybe Dean has polls indicating that Gephardt's attacks on him are doing serious damage in Iowa. But if so, this wasn't the way to fight back. Gephardt took the opportunity to stick it to Dean again for agreeing with the $270 billion in Medicare cuts sought by Newt Gingrich in 1995. With that setup, Gephardt threw an uppercut that lifted Dean right off the canvas: "You've been saying for many months that you're the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. I think you're just winging it." At that point, Dean totally lost it. "That is flat-out false, and I'm ashamed that you would compare me with Newt Gingrich," he sputtered. "I've done more for health insurance, Dick Gephardt, frankly, than you ever have." Dean was so angry, Al Sharpton had to calm him down.
But calm down he did. A few minutes later, Dean was smiling and promising "never to have internecine warfare." And when a questioner asked whether he had restated his position on trade in response to Joe Lieberman's criticisms, Dean replied jovially, "These days I feel [the] need to restate practically every position I have based on all the things these guys have said about me in the last three or four weeks."
3. Lieberman's vigor. This was Lieberman's best debate. Usually, he looks older than his age. This time, he looked younger. The look matched his message of high-tech dynamism, research, innovation, entrepreneurship, free trade, economic growth, and jobs. He was also the first candidate to seize on the resignation of former New York Stock Exchange Chairman Dick Grasso as a springboard for talking about the corporate "culture of greed and irresponsibility." Of course, it wouldn't be a Lieberman performance without a cringe-worthy ham-handed quip. Today's entry: "In the Bush administration, the foxes are guarding the foxes, and the middle-class hens are getting plucked. I want to make clear I said plucked." (Lieberman grins. Audience groans.)
4. Edwards' message discipline. As regular Slate readers know, I'm a sucker for John Edwards' message about how Bush taxes work instead of wealth. Such a sucker that I've been irked at Edwards' failure to hammer that message more obsessively. This time, he worked it into his answers to questions about tax cuts, trade, steel tariffs, Social Security, and even farm subsidies, which he defended for everyone but "millionaire farmers." It's the first debate in which Edwards picked a theme and stuck to it. Everyone else may be bored, but I'm happy.
5. Kerry's conservatism. After the Dean-Gephardt slugfest, Kerry threw in an extra shot at Dean for having "stood with Newt Gingrich." But let's rewind the tape. Which candidate in this debate defended Bush's tax cuts by focusing on families who get several child tax credits—a statistical trick that Bush constantly uses and Democrats constantly denounce? Which candidate said of employers, "Democrats can't love jobs and hate the people who create them"? Which candidate boasted that his health-care proposal was "not a government plan"? Kerry, that's who.
And now a few prizes for noteworthy lines.
Catchphrase du jour. "Halliburton" within three words of "no-bid contracts." Used by Kerry, Lieberman, and Bob Graham.
Worst abuse of the word "literally." Graham on Bush: "He is literally in bed with pharmaceutical companies."
Biggest stretch. Sharpton on trade: "African-Americans are here on a bad trade policy."
Worst gaffe. Dean, answering a question about Grasso: "What Dick did ..." (Pssst, Howard: You're a populist this year, remember?)
Worst logic. Gephardt on why the Bush tax cuts must be repealed, even for the middle class: "The president's economic plan has failed, and we should not keep half of a failure."
Bravest answer. Kucinich, responding to a request for the least popular thing he would do as president: "First, I would take action to stop the federal death penalty. Second, I would move to cut the Pentagon budget by 15 percent. ... Third, I would move to create a Department of Peace, which would seek to make nonviolence an organizing principle in our society and to work with the nations of the world to make war itself archaic."
Oiliest answer. Edwards, responding to the same request: "We cannot allow people like John Ashcroft to take away our rights."
Weirdest kumbaya line. Dean: "We need to remember that the enemy here is George Bush."