Notes from the presidential candidates' speeches at this weekend's Florida Democratic Party convention:
1. Dean preview. Every Howard Dean appearance is now an audition for the role of Democratic nominee. Everyone wants to know whether he can deflect charges that he'll raise taxes and weaken the military. In his speech and a subsequent Q and A, Dean handled both issues well. He ripped Bush's "credit-card" presidency. He talked about the budgets he's balanced. On health care, he stipulated, "We don't have to have a big, complicated government-run system to do this." In the Q and A, he scoffed, "Republicans used to be the party of fiscal responsibility. Now they're the party of borrow and spend. … I don't know why they can't manage money. Maybe it's 'cause they never had to earn it." Dean delivered the line with a perfect deadpan as the delegates laughed.
Dean seemed even more eager to tackle defense issues. "A strong military is important," he declared. Continuing last week's in-your-face assault, he referred twice to what "the president doesn't understand about defense." He cobbled together the usual indictments of Bush: inadequate cargo container inspections, failure to buy leftover uranium from Russia, letting North Korea develop nukes, overstretching the National Guard and Reserves, cutting troops' pay, denying special medical help to some veterans. In the Q and A, Dean militarized a question about energy: "This is a matter of national defense. Our oil money goes to the Middle East, where some of it is used to teach small children to hate Americans."
Great show. Then Dean went on Fox News Sunday and choked it all away in a performance so bad it ought to raise alarms. Host Chris Wallace asked Dean why he thought Bush's Iraq policy lacked "high moral purpose," why he had touted the "interesting theory" that Bush had been warned beforehand about 9/11, and why he thought God, guns, and gays weren't important issues. Instead of his usual jujitsu, Dean babbled and half backed away on each question. He looked weak, confused, and dishonest.
2. Florida fixation. The candidates and delegates couldn't stop talking about how Bush had ripped them off in the 2000 recount and how they were going to get even. My favorite moment was when John Edwards declared, "We have got to end this presidency. But we also have to do something else." Before Edwards could get the next sentence out of his mouth—which was supposed to be about offering voters a positive agenda—a delegate shouted, "Get rid of [Bush's] brother!" Edwards and the rest of the crowd burst out laughing. Very funny if you're a committed Democrat. Not so funny if you're an independent wondering whether Democrats stand for more than revenge.
3. Talking turkey. When Bush landed on an aircraft carrier after the fall of Baghdad, pundits called it brilliant stagecraft. Months later, having been proved wrong, they swooned again at his Thanksgiving visit to Iraq. Sure enough, the Iraq trip began losing luster as reporters discovered that the White House had embellished part of the story (about a British Airways pilot radioing Air Force One) and that the turkey Bush had held up in photographs was fake. I counted at least three candidates who worked the turkey angle into their speeches in Florida: John Kerry ("This president flies all the way to Baghdad to walk out and hold a fake turkey for a photo opportunity"), Wes Clark (who promised to go to Iraq with more than a "midnight turkey"), and Dean ("That is not the only fake turkey in this administration)." If Iraq remains a mess, expect to hear more next year about the turkey.
4. The Saudi enemy. Saudi-bashing is going very mainstream. "We deserve a president who tells us the truth about the Saudis," said Kerry. He went on, "The Saudis' chief law enforcement official said publicly that he thought 9/11 was the consequence of Jews and Jewish conspiracy. And our president continues a sweetheart relationship with that country that even included flying … all around our country to collect Osama Bin Laden's family and get 'em out of this nation" after 9/11. Dean listed Saudi Arabia along with Syria and Iran as the chief sponsors of terrorism against Israel: "We have to cut off our foreign oil money to the Saudis and stand up to them."
5. The new Kerry. He interrupts his speech to walk over and kiss his wife. He calls companies that leave the country traitors: "When I'm president, we're gonna scour that tax code, and so help me, God, we're not gonna leave one incentive or one reward for any Benedict Arnold company or executive to take their companies … offshore." He curses a blue streak. Having used the F-word in Rolling Stone ("Did I expect George Bush to f--- it up as badly as he did? I don't think anybody did") and complained in New Hampshire about working people "getting screwed by special interests," Kerry tells the Florida audience that FDR invited them to "sit on your ass" and that Bush will "kick your ass." In his Q and A, Kerry swears, "The very first thing I will do is give a damn good inaugural address." Unless, of course, voters tell him to go to hell.