This was the best debate I've seen in this whole election. I think half of it was the sitting-around-the-table format, and half was the luxury of focusing on four candidates instead of nine. Now if we can just get it down to two guys in lounge chairs, we'll be set.
Since the debates are nearly over, and feedback to the candidates is pretty much useless, here's my feedback.
To John Kerry and John Edwards:
Thanks for plugging my exit poll analysis. I worked hard to earn this little niche, so I'll take the liberty of refereeing your dispute about it. John E, you said "the independents have been voting for me" in the primaries. Not so. My chart shows Kerry beat you among independents in six of the 10 exit-polled contests. In a post-debate e-mail to reporters, your staff lopped off the top half of the chart, in which Kerry beat you among independents all five times. Poof, just like that, your 4-of-10 record became 4-of-5. Your aides even trimmed Missouri out of the picture, claiming it wasn't "contested." Who decided which states would be "contested"? You did. And which states did you choose to contest? The ones where you figured you could win independents. And where did you find those states? In your native region. Four of those five states you brag about are in the South. In short, you did well where you knew you would, in your home games.
Stick to chronological accounting. You're 4-of-8 in all exit-polled contests this month, and 2-of-3 since Feb. 10.
John K, you said, "There's nothing that documents what [Edwards] said" about winning independents. Excuse me? How about this document? Or this one? Or this one? Or this one? You also said, "I won Independents and Republicans in Iowa." Dude, Republicans can't vote in the Iowa Democratic caucuses. The official exit-poll score between you and Edwards among Iowa Republicans was zero to zero. Then you said "many Republicans crossed over and registered as Democrats" to vote for you. What was that again about undocumented claims?
1. If you get the nomination, negotiate at least one sitting-down debate with President Bush. You act much more human in this posture than you do standing up. Getting you off your feet seems to liberate you from the deadly instinct to talk like a senator. You looked as though you were being clear and consistent even when you weren't.
2. Stop talking to yourself. I saw you mouthing silent strings of words to yourself a couple of times. I thought you would wake up and stop, but you went on and on. What the hell are you thinking? This is national television, and you're on the verge of being the nation's only alternative to Bush. Do us all a favor and suspend your inner life while the cameras are rolling.
3. Good job playing the big brother. You absorbed Edwards' mild jabs with a smile and no rancor. The physical message was that you're going to win, and you don't need to hit back. You get an A+ for your answer to the closing question about whether you'd consider Edwards for your ticket. With a nod to his comment that he'd consider you for his ticket, you said, "I want to thank him for the consideration." Classy move. In sports, the team leader is the guy who says some other guy is the team leader. And in a presidential primary, the leader is the guy who doesn't need to play the "no, he'll be on my ticket" game.
4. Hats off to you for bringing up gay marriage without being asked. But shame on you for ruling out cuts in Social Security benefits without being asked.
5. What's your position on whether conservative states should have to honor gay marriages performed in liberal states? Figure it out before the next time you're asked. Your dodge tonight, saying you voted against the Defense of Marriage Act because it was "gay-bashing," won't cut it. Without DOMA, the alternatives appear to be Bush's constitutional amendment or forcing Florida to honor Massachusetts' gay marriages. Are you willing to go into the general election offering voters that choice?
6. Loved your answer about competing against Bush in the South. Prosecutor, hunter, veteran—that's a good lineup, and well presented. Even Edwards smiled appreciatively.
7. Your death penalty answer sounds like it's been in the can since 1988. You said what everyone thinks Dukakis should have said: that you'd like to strangle the fiend with your bare hands. The DNA stuff is good, too: As an argument against the death penalty, the risk of executing innocent people polls much better than moral absolutism does. But please stop comparing the United States unfavorably to countries that ban capital punishment. It just helps the GOP make the case that you should be running for president of France.
1. Stop doing that thing where you rotate your head and flash a cheesy grin to the camera as you're introduced. It makes you look like an android. Tonight you guessed wrong and grinned at the wrong camera. I cringed.
2. I think I speak for many people in the press corps when I say we've been trying harder to get you nominated than you have. Ron Brownstein and Larry King practically begged you tonight to give voters a reason not to choose Kerry. And what was your answer? "He's a good man. ... He'd make a good president." You said your position was the same as Kerry's, even when his position (on amending the Constitution to let foreign-born U.S. citizens become president) was that he hadn't formulated a position. Why don't you save us a lot of time and cut the ad for him, already?
3. For the first time I can remember, you lost the nice-guy contest. You looked more uncomfortable with Kerry than he did with you. Your poke at him for not giving a direct answer to the DOMA question looked cheap. "You need to let me finish first" was also an unhelpful outburst. Why the nerves? Stop acting like a loser or you'll end up being one.
4. Kerry really stuck it to you on that question about whether the two of you regretted your votes for the Iraq resolution. He let you go first, then pulled an Edwards, poking fun at your elaborate reply by starting out with a one-word alternative answer: "No." His answer got more complicated, but that's the point. Remember your rule: Short answer first.
5. Good job boning up on DOMA. Next, try studying up on Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the rotation of our Army divisions. Kerry kicked your rear end on that stuff.
6. So, when you answered that question about Haiti by praising the diplomatic missions of Jimmy Carter and Sam Nunn, that wasn't a sop to Georgia, was it?
7. Nice comeback on health care. Kerry patronizingly said your plan could become "parts of a larger approach," namely his. You, after scowling at this remark, replied that health care was "part of a bigger frame" that included retirement savings and homeownership for the middle class, which is where you put the extra money instead.
8. Keep rehearsing that list of trade agreements on which you voted no and Kerry voted yes. He practically choked in disbelief, with justification, when you said you campaigned against NAFTA. Your campaign was in 1998, five years after Kerry and other senators had to vote on it, while you were pleasantly practicing law. Opposing NAFTA in 1998 was like opposing the Iraq war in 2004. Everything's easier in hindsight.
To Dennis Kucinich:
I think your agenda is nuts, but you were so right about offering the only substantive differences in this debate. While the panelists implored Kerry and Edwards to disagree, you distinguished yourself from both of them on NAFTA, gay marriage, health care, and Iraq. Yet it was you, not Edwards, to whom King directed the question, "Why are you here?" And we journalists call this a debate? Maybe we're nuts, too.
To Al Sharpton:
As usual, you delivered the best lines of the evening: 1) "Let's make a constitutional amendment against presidents that lie." And 2) "The issue in 2004 is not if gays marry. The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you [has] a job when you get up in the morning." Funny stuff. But the bottom line isn't who you laugh with on Thursday night. It's who you vote for on Tuesday morning.