If you rely on the major newspapers, you probably learned just two things about Saturday night's Iowa Democratic Party presidential forum: Howard Dean was attacked, and Hillary Clinton overshadowed the candidates. That's a shame. We journalists allowed our boredom and biases to distract us from what voters need to know. We shouldn't have written about Dean and Clinton. We should have written about John Kerry and Dennis Kucinich.
Last week, I made fun of Kerry's campaign shakeup and his promises of a new theme. Saturday night, he unveiled that theme, and you know what? It's terrific. On a series of issues, Kerry contrasted President Bush's promises with what Bush has delivered, leading the crowd in a refrain against each "raw deal." With a nod to FDR, Kerry promised a "real deal, where we stand up and fight for working people … where we make our economy an economy that's based on people and products."
The word "real" was explicitly aimed at Bush, whom Kerry accused of playing "dress-up" in his famous celebration of victory in Iraq. "I know something about aircraft carriers for real," said Kerry. "If George Bush wants to make national security the issue of this campaign, then I have three words for him that I know he understands: Bring it on!" Kerry's supporters took up the chant, but Kerry made clear that his message also targeted Dean: "We are a Democratic Party that offers real solutions, real leaders—the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Bill Clinton. … We need to offer answers, not just anger. We need to offer solutions, not just slogans. So, Iowa, don't just send them a message next January. Send them a president."
This is what Kerry's message should be, because it's who he is. He's the guy to whom battlefield bloodshed is real and foreign policy isn't a foreign language. It's what distinguishes him—now that Wes Clark has bowed out—from every other contender in Iowa. Kerry isn't pretending to be the guy who makes your heart race. He's saying, go ahead and have your fling, but when it's time to marry, you know who to count on.
The other guy standing in Kerry's way is Dick Gephardt. Today's Los Angeles Times treats Iowa as a two-man contest, asking, "Will Dean's Passion Trump Gephardt's Wallet Issues?" It's an odd concession, given that both Dean and Gephardt would repeal the parts of the Bush tax cuts that benefit the middle class. Even in a Democratic caucus, a third candidate should be able to make headway by hammering the front-runners on this issue. That's what Kerry did Saturday. "I will not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in America, and I will not raise taxes on the middle class," he pledged. Embarrassingly—for us, not for Kerry—not a single newspaper in the Nexis or Factiva database ran that quote.
The other guy who deserved attention for his speech Saturday night was Kucinich. I've ragged on him almost as much as I have on Kerry. But while Gephardt and Kerry criticized Bush's Iraq policy on the grounds that it was hurting American standing in the world, Kucinich pointed out the policy's human cost, as opposed to its political one. Hours before the candidates spoke, the wires reported that U.S. forces had suffered their most deadly incident of the war. Yet the only thing Gephardt managed to say about Bush's policy was, "We're losing our allies by the day." Kucinich addressed the day's horrors more directly. He opened his speech by recalling his visits as a newspaper copy boy to families who had lost their sons in Vietnam.
Kucinich also showed more courage on trade policy. Gephardt usually talks about NAFTA in his speeches. He points out that he stood up to President Clinton on that issue. Not this time. With Sen. Clinton introducing the candidates—reading introductions their staffs had written—Gephardt omitted NAFTA from both his speech and his introduction. Kucinich, on the other hand, forced Sen. Clinton to introduce him as "the only candidate … who pledges to cancel NAFTA and WTO as his first act in office." That was as much of an affront as Kucinich was prepared to deliver. In his speech, he proclaimed, "This is the moment when we should be calling for … an America where a president will say, as I will say, I will cancel—I will work to achieve an America which works with the world community." Anyone who has followed Kucinich knows which word was going to follow "cancel" until he caught himself: NAFTA.
The most interesting thing about Dean's speech was his extensive recollection of the civil rights movement. This is becoming a staple of Dean's stump speech. He didn't add it till he got in trouble for appealing to voters who display Confederate flag decals. It's an adjustment, and that's fine. But while he's in the business of adjusting, Dean might want to stop saying of Bush, as he did again Saturday night, "The word quota … is a race-coded word." Nobody who uses the phrase "Confederate flag" to attract the support of white racists has any business complaining about somebody else using the word "quota."
Speaking of gaffes, did you catch the reference to John Edwards' dead son in his introduction? Edwards' "first child, Wade, died in 1996," said Sen. Clinton. Edwards has never brought up this tragedy so explicitly on the stump, and he has repeatedly insisted it's "private."
From the standpoint of the general election, the two most significant moments in this forum went overlooked by the media. The first was the singing of the national anthem, which was performed by the Des Moines Gay Men's Chorus. I'm a card-carrying advocate of gay civil rights and gay marriage, but for the millions of Americans who aren't there yet, entrusting the national anthem to a group of guys in black turtlenecks and neatly trimmed beards is way too in-your-face. It conveys a blindness to cultural reality that bodes ill for the Democratic Party in the red states.
The other revealing moment was Edwards' pledge to create 5 million jobs in the first two years of his presidency. Any presidential candidate knows it takes more than two years to enact an economic policy and see it produce results of that size. In other words, the pledge doesn't reflect Edwards' confidence that he can grow those jobs. It reflects his confidence that the economy will grow those jobs anyway. I don't suppose he'll credit them to the president whose policies are already in effect.
Correction, Nov. 19, 2003: This article originally referred to "Edwards' boast that 'no one is better prepared' to be president." Edwards' exact statement was, "The road to the White House starts right here in Iowa, and it is time for us to choose a new president of the United States. And no one is better prepared or understands better what has happened in America." The Edwards campaign contends that the phrase "no one is better prepared" was meant to refer to the first half of the preceding sentence (Iowans), not to the second half (the candidate running for president, i.e., Edwards). I'm persuaded that my initial interpretation of the remark is less plausible. Accordingly, I've removed the reference.