The Democrats debate in Phoenix.

The Democrats debate in Phoenix.

The Democrats debate in Phoenix.

Politics and policy.
Oct. 10 2003 4:50 AM

The Phoenix Debate

Klutzy Clark, Dizzy Dean, and other highlights from the Democratic face-off.

Like a drummer in Spinal Tap, Bob Graham has departed the 2004 presidential race, leaving in his wake a sense of absence of a sense of absence. The remaining nine Democrats met last night for a debate in Phoenix. Here are a few highlights.

1. Clark's credibility problem. Wes Clark always looks sincere. As critics of President Bush know, that look can immunize a politician against piles of evidence that his statements aren't true. But Clark keeps pushing his luck. In this debate, he said, "I would never have voted for war. The Congress made a mistake in giving George Bush an open-ended resolution that enabled him to go to war without coming back to the Congress." Huh? It's on the record that exactly one year ago, when that resolution was being debated in Congress, Clark "said ... he support[ed] a congressional resolution that would give President Bush authority to use military force against Iraq." In short, 1) Clark supported the resolution. 2) Clark says the resolution let Bush go to war. 3) Clark says he never would have voted for war. Am I missing something?

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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Not content with that hole, Clark dug himself a few more. He denied moderator Judy Woodruff's demonstrably true assertion that "there were some changes in your statements about Iraq" in the days after Clark announced his candidacy. Then Clark brushed off his praise for Bush in May 2001 by saying, "I did not vote for George W. Bush. I voted for Al Gore. But when I did go into a Republican fund-raiser, because I was nonpartisan at that point, then I did acknowledge that I knew his national security team. ... Yes, I had seen disturbing signs, and I gave a speech that called on greater international involvement at the time. And the things I spoke about in that fund-raiser were things that the administration didn't exactly support."

Let me get this straight: 1) Clark was nonpartisan. 2) Clark voted against Bush and saw disturbing signs after Bush won. 3) Clark then spoke at an event to raise money for Bush's party. 4) At this event, Clark said things he knew Bush didn't support.

2. Stop-Dean Gridlock. If you're going to gang up on a candidate, get your story straight. The more Howard Dean gets attacked from the left (by Dick Gephardt on Medicare and Social Security, and by Dennis Kucinich on the Iraq occupation) and from the right (by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman on trade and middle-class tax cuts), the more the attacks blur into a din of contradictory complaints, suggesting that Dean must be somewhere in the comfortable center. Every jab from Kucinich lets Dean show he's no Kucinich. Every jab from Lieberman lets Dean show he's no Lieberman. Dean summed up the effect when, after taking a shot from Gephardt, he said with a smile, "The folks that are running against me have had the greatest time. First they said I was George McGovern and couldn't win, and now they're saying I'm Newt Gingrich and I couldn't win."

Listen to what Dean said in this debate, and you'll get the real story:

Here are the differences between me and the [candidates] from Washington. First, our campaign is changing the political system in this country. Last time, last quarter, we raised more money than any other candidate by three times—200,000 donors, average gift $72. Secondly, I have a record. Everybody is going to talk about health insurance. Every kid under 18 in my state has health insurance. A third of all the seniors have prescription benefits. Working poor people have health insurance. And the third area is the war. ... If you want real change in this country, then I'd like your support.

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That's one issue (the war), plus executive experience (legislators can't get their way as a governor can), plus raising money from medium-sized donors. The legitimate rap on Dean isn't that he's too far to the left or right, but that he's parlayed largely procedural differences into an image as the lone candidate who will bring "real change."

Gephardt's economic message. I'm no fan of Gephardt's demagoguery on retirement programs. I almost laughed out loud when he claimed that Democrats are doing fine because they won the presidential election prior to the last one, increased their chronic minority in the House, and "won the Senate back not long ago" by getting a Republican to defect before losing it in the next election. But give Gephardt credit: He's the only guy who relentlessly exploits the Clinton economic record. "We got a great story for the American people," said Gephardt. "I led the fight for the Clinton economic program in 1993. It created 22 million new jobs. ... We know how to do this. They [Republicans] do not. If you want to live like a Republican, you've got to vote for the Democrats." Again and again, Gephardt came back to this argument. The reason his party is in such lousy shape is that it hasn't sold this argument, and the evidence behind it, consistently enough.

Lieberman's integrity shtick. I like Joe Lieberman's relatively conservative positions on a lot of issues, but I don't think he can win the Democratic nomination by emphasizing those positions. Evidently, he doesn't think so, either. In this debate, he focused less on the content of his positions than on the character he demonstrates by sticking to them. Lieberman framed every bad Bush policy as a failure of "integrity," and he spun every unpopular position of his own as evidence of his courage, conviction, and trustworthiness. I doubt this shift in emphasis will help Lieberman kill off any of his competitors. But it might stop him from killing himself.

Now for the awards.

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Best line: Kerry. "There are two ways for you to have lower prescription drug costs. One is you could hire Rush Limbaugh's housekeeper ... or you can elect me president."

First slam at Halliburton: Kucinich.

First slam at the PATRIOT Act: Al Sharpton.

First to leave his post and walk toward the audience: Kerry.

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Most unrelenting hype: Gephardt. Bush's Iraq policy is "incomprehensible!" His foreign policy is "an abysmal failure!" His tax cuts are "a miserable failure!"

Most shocking disclosure: Kucinich. "I have a proposal that's supported by 50 members of Congress to create a Cabinet-level Department of Peace."

Most alarming assertion: Clark. "The question that Candy raised about Iran is a very serious question. ... We're marching into another military campaign in the Middle East."

Least credible alibi: Kerry, after Woodruff read aloud a criticism of Dean that "Senator Kerry's staff has been distributing" in the debate press room. "I didn't raise this, and I didn't know they were saying that."

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Best Hispanic impersonation: Dean, for perfectly pronouncing the soft T in "Latino."

Best use of the audience: John Edwards, for engaging a questioner in a conversation about her prescription drug coverage, complete with Clintonesque "you are the only person in the whole world" gaze.

Heaviest name drop: Kerry. "I spoke with the secretary-general in the last 24 hours ..."

Shirtsleeve roll call: The eight male candidates took off their jackets for the part of the debate in which they sat on stools close to the audience and took questions. Clark, Edwards, Dean, and Kucinich rolled up their shirt sleeves. Sharpton, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman didn't. Which leaves us with the question: WWBGD?