The Democrats debate in Detroit.

The Democrats debate in Detroit.

The Democrats debate in Detroit.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 27 2003 5:18 PM

The Detroit Debate

Probing Dean, stretching Clark, and more Democratic gymnastics.

A few observations from Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate in Detroit:

1. Dean vulnerability watch. Howard Dean has been taking hits from Dick Gephardt for supporting cost controls on Medicare. But the damage from that attack is mostly confined to the primaries. If Dean gets to the general election, he'll face a bigger threat from two other criticisms: that he's weak on foreign policy and that he would raise taxes on the middle class. This debate provided a good test of Dean's ability to rebut those criticisms, both of which were delivered on this occasion by John Kerry.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Dean handled the foreign policy challenge well. His key point against the charge of inexperience is that he got Iraq right while the more experienced candidates got it wrong. "I was … able to tell the president was not being candid," said Dean. It's a powerful response, because it answers a theoretical complaint ("You're too inexperienced to get things right") with a huge factual counterexample ("I got the biggest thing right, and you got it wrong"). Dean can use the same defense against Bush.

On taxes, Dean is in bigger trouble. He wants to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts; Kerry wants to keep the parts that benefit the middle class. I've seen them spar over this several times, and it's increasingly clear that Dean's position is indefensible and a huge albatross in the general election. The sound bite he tried out in this debate—"What middle-class tax cuts?"—might well show up in Republican ads as evidence that he's out of touch.

Part of the problem is that the average middle-class person's share of the tax cuts, while low, isn't zero. As Kerry points out, for people with kids, it's substantial. Another part of the problem, noted by Kerry and Joe Lieberman, is that the middle-class portion of the tax cut was originally pushed by congressional Democrats. But the biggest problem is Dean's stated reason for repealing that middle-class portion: that he has to do so in order to balance the budget. If the amount of money involved is so small that you don't need it as a taxpayer, why is it so big that Dean needs it as president?

Dean's responses to Kerry on this point were exceedingly lame. He argued that anyone who agrees with any part of the Bush tax cuts is too similar to Bush to be elected. That's ridiculous. Nobody's going to have trouble distinguishing Kerry's position from Bush's. Dean's other response was that people will vote for a presidential candidate who says what he believes, even if "70 percent of the people in this country disagree with me." Tell that to Bruce Babbitt and Walter Mondale.

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2. Kerry's war record. In recent weeks, Kerry has played the Vietnam veteran card with less and less subtlety. How much can it do for him? Judging by this debate, a lot. When Lieberman chided him for voting against the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq, Kerry shot back, "Well, Joe, I have seared in me an experience which you don't have, and that's the experience of being one of those troops on the front lines when the policy has gone wrong." The audience applauded loudly. Kerry went on to give several reasons why his vote was a better way to "protect the troops," but what made these reasons credible was the battlefield experience Kerry had invoked. Lieberman ended up having to add, "I respect John Kerry's military service to our country."

By the way, what is Wes Clark getting at when he keeps saying, "I stayed with the United States Army when other people left the service"? Is that a dig at Kerry? Does Clark really think anyone begrudges a winner of the Silver Star the right to get on with his life?

3. Clark's candor stretch. Clark did a good job of projecting strength. "I've put my finger in the chest of a dictator and told him if he didn't shape up, we'd bomb him. And when he didn't shape up, we did. And he's in The Hague now, awaiting trial for war crimes," said Clark. At another point, Clark added, "Nobody is going to see the United States on my watch humiliated in a military mission because we don't have the gumption to follow through on our requirements."

On the other hand, Clark looks less honest all the time. In this debate, he retold the story about how he lost a student council race in school because he voted, as a courtesy, for the other candidate. The implication is that Clark is Mr. Clean. But on Iraq, Clark is Mr. Revisionist. "I've been against this war from the beginning. I was against it last summer, I was against it in the fall, I was against it in the winter, I was against it in the spring." In the spring? Has Clark not read the transcripts of his appearances on CNN? Or does he think nobody else has?

Clark compounded this insult to our intelligence by joking that he gives credit where it's due—"even Republicans doing something right." Does Clark think if he bashes Republicans hard enough, we'll forget he voted for them and praised them two years ago?

4. The Joemobile gets traction. I've been pretty hard on Lieberman, but I thought this was his most important debate performance, principally because he finally distinguished himself from everyone else in the field. He's the candidate of muscular integrity. Unlike Gephardt, who tried to mute his difference with Kerry and John Edwards over the $87 billion for Iraq, Lieberman went after those two senators vociferously for flip-flopping on the vote. When Al Sharpton asked whether Lieberman would meet with Yasser Arafat, Lieberman made his case against such a meeting—a position obviously unpopular with the crowd—in such a forceful, well-argued way that the crowd ended up applauding him. Later, when he was asked about being "Bush lite," Lieberman replied, "I get angry when people say to me somehow that I'm not an authentic Democrat because I'm strong on defense, strong on values, and willing to talk about the role of faith in American life. I'm not going to yield that ground to the Republicans. I'm Joe Lieberman. I'm an independent-minded Democrat. And as president, I'm going to restore prosperity and security to the American people." The only flaw in his otherwise powerful delivery was a classic Liebermanism: a grin as he called himself angry.

5. Why Johnny can't write. I can't remember a weirder line from any serious candidate in any of these debates than Edwards' boast Sunday night that he's "written down" his plans. He said it three times. (Trust me, I wrote it down.) What's his point? That he's literate? That promises are more solemn when they're on paper? That writing down your ideas makes them more specific? That's a duh and two falsehoods, plus the absurdity of a candidate vouching for his specificity in general. Note to Edwards: You don't have to read every dumb line your handlers prepare for you, just because it's written down.