The Democrats debate in New York.

The Democrats debate in New York.

The Democrats debate in New York.

Politics and policy.
Feb. 29 2004 4:29 PM

The New York Debate

Edwards makes the most of his last chance.

This was the performance John Edwards desperately needed to boost himself to a decent showing on Super Tuesday. Did it come too late? We'll find out. Edwards should have done this Thursday night in Los Angeles. The panelists in that debate begged him to take over, but he failed. This morning's panelists begged harder, and he delivered.


I couldn't keep track of exactly how much time each candidate spoke today, but Edwards got way more than his share. Part of it was his aggression in pouncing on questions and bulldozing through the attempts of a table full of New Yorkers to cut him off. But most of it was the naked determination of the panelists to prod Edwards until he whacked John Kerry. They wanted blood and got it.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

The highlight of the morning was a quarrel about trade policy. Edwards ridiculed Kerry's proposal to spend the first four months of his presidency having a "Washington committee" study the effects of past trade agreements while people were losing their jobs in Ohio. He asked Kerry, "Do you believe we're going to change this country out of Washington, D.C.?" Kerry replied, sensibly, that he did, since that's where Congress and the White House are. Taking aim at Edwards' inexperience, Kerry said change required a president with "the proven ability ... to stand up and take on tough fights." At the same time, Kerry noted that Edwards has been in Washington for five years and voted for the China free trade agreement. Kerry blamed Bush for failing to enforce job-protection provisions in such trade deals. He said that his 120-day review would allow "smart, thoughtful people" to evaluate which trade policies were working and that he would make sure future agreements included strong provisions to keep jobs at home.

Edwards replied that Kerry's promises were very nice but that the record told a different story: Kerry had voted for the Singapore trade agreement, the Chile trade agreement, the Africa trade agreement, and the Caribbean trade agreement, all of which Edwards had opposed. To this, Kerry retorted that Edwards had talked more in the last five weeks about trade than he had in his five years in the Senate. Among other things, Kerry charged, "He didn't vote in the 1994 election when he had a chance to vote about trade."

I think Edwards drew serious blood during this exchange. If you're a voter anxious about the exportability of your job, Edwards gave you a thick list of trade deals on which he seems to have been on your side when Kerry wasn't. (I think Kerry is right on trade and Edwards is wrong, but Edwards' position is the political winner, especially in a Democratic primary.) Kerry's reference to "smart, thoughtful people" is exactly the kind of Best-and-Brightest babble that infuriates folks who are watching jobs disappear while bureaucrats in Washington chat over coffee. I have no idea what Kerry meant about 1994, when Edwards was a private citizen and no Senate seat was open in North Carolina. And Edwards pretty much slam-dunked the exchange by telling Kerry to his face, "The suggestion that I came late to this? I want to say to Sen. Kerry, I have lived with this my entire life. I saw what happened when the mill in my home town closed that my own father worked in." It was hard to come away with the impression, intended by Kerry, that Edwards was faking it.


Kerry also suffered a wound on the question of fiscal responsibility. Edwards trumpeted a Washington Post analysis indicating that Kerry's spending promises added up to $165 billion more than Kerry's revenue plans (which basically consist of repealing Bush's tax cuts in the upper brackets) would bring in. Kerry responded by mocking Edwards' youth: "I'd think John would have learned by now not to believe everything he reads in the newspaper. And he should do his homework." The Post was wrong, said Kerry. He explained, "A stimulus is by definition something that you do outside of the budget for one year or two years. The Washington Post included the stimulus when they figured the numbers. The stimulus is what you do to kick the economy into gear so that you can reduce the deficit."

Excuse me, but doesn't this answer by Kerry essentially endorse dynamic scoring—the practice, championed by supply-side conservatives, of refusing to count goodies from Uncle Sam as losses to the Treasury, on the theory that they'll pump up the economy and bring in more revenue than they cost? Hasn't Kerry ridiculed Republicans for applying this logic to tax cuts? And isn't he now applying it to his own "stimulus"?

Stylistically, Kerry was as strong in this debate as he was in Los Angeles. Again, he benefited from sitting. He was serene, clear, authoritative, and good-humored. He demonstrated mastery of everything from North Korea to military funeral protocol to the safety of the New York water supply. He laughed when the dialogue was funny, smiled respectfully when he was criticized, and looked on with amusement each time the conversation erupted into chaos. At one point, responding to moderator Dan Rather's suggestion that he lacked charm, Kerry defended himself by strumming an imaginary version of his classical guitar. His only reversion to the two-faced Kerry of last year was his answer to a question on gay marriage. After recalling that he had attended a gay wedding, he stipulated, "I just happen to have a different opinion about what you call it and what the status is." Please. If the invitation says it's a wedding, and you attend, you support gay marriage. And it's an insult to your hosts to claim later that you don't.

Edwards has obviously boned up on Haiti since Thursday. He flaunted two gratuitous factoids, delving into the country's presidential line of succession and mentioning twice that it was on its 33rd government. Turning to homeland security, he trotted out another show-off number, explaining that at least 10 percent of cargo at U.S. ports had to be inspected in order to achieve a deterrent effect. But what stood out about Edwards in this hour was what has stood out about him all along: He animates with his face and body a message of energetic change that Kerry can only mouth. When Edwards described the ability of Americans to look at a candidate and sense his sincerity and his understanding of their lives, he wasn't just arguing the point. He was living it.

One of the strangest things about this debate was the decision of the panelists, in what must be the most secular city in America, to begin and end the hour with questions about the candidates' religious faith. Both times, Kerry gave scripted, defensive answers vouching for his theism. Both times, Edwards broadened the question to faith's role in presidential action. In his final answer, Edwards quoted Abraham Lincoln's prayer that we serve on God's side rather than that He serve on ours. That's the difference between learning a new language—in this case, public religiosity—and having grown up with it.

For voters choosing between Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich, this morning's encounter clarified an important distinction. Neither candidate was asked many questions. Kucinich, without rancor, used his time to articulate several constructive policy differences between him and the Kerry/Edwards wing. Sharpton used his time to pick fights with the panelists, accusing them of "arrogance" for neglecting him. One guy focused on how he was being treated, while the other focused on how others less fortunate than him were being treated.

The other participants deserving of comment were the questioners. Rather egged Edwards into the fight, in the finest Texas schoolyard tradition, by suggesting that if he didn't throw a punch at Kerry, he must just be running for vice president. When Edwards began talking about his differences with Kerry over trade, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times interrupted him with the dismissive question, "Sen. Edwards, could I just ask you, if you lose all 10 primaries on Tuesday, are you still in this race?" Later, Andrew Kirtzman of WCBS-TV told Edwards, "You're worth upwards of $36 million. ... Do you think your supporters know that you live this way?" When Edwards pointed out that his riches came from rags, Kirtzman brushed the answer aside, repeating, "I just want to remind you of the question that I [asked]: Do you think your supporters know you live this way?" What answer could Edwards or Kerry give to such a question? The question was plainly designed to embarrass the candidate and to showcase what the reporter, not the candidate, had to say. And we wonder why people hate the press.