The Democrats debate in Wisconsin.

The Democrats debate in Wisconsin.

The Democrats debate in Wisconsin.

Politics and policy.
Feb. 16 2004 3:00 AM

The Wisconsin Debate

Kerry waffles, Edwards wallops, Dean wanes.

Ten thoughts on Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee:

Want some syrup with that waffle?
Want some syrup with that waffle?
William Saletan William Saletan

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

1. Kerry waffle watch. John Kerry lost his lead in 2003 because he couldn't give straight answers to simple questions. Then the guy with the straight answers, Howard Dean, started giving answers so brutally straight (your taxes will go up, sit down and let me finish) that people decided a bit more diplomacy was in order. But Kerry has to watch his bad habits in this area. He never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out. His evasiveness smells fishy.

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First, panelist Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel asked Kerry whether he would change his votes on NAFTA and other trade agreements in light of the jobs lost since then. Kerry gave a lawyerly answer blaming President Bush for failing to enforce "side agreements" that supposedly would have protected the jobs. Then he changed the subject to job creation and ended up talking, incredibly, about stem cell research. When Kerry finally came up for air, Gilbert asked, "But no regrets about those votes?" Kerry dodged again: "I regret the way that they haven't been enforced, sure."

The pattern went on. Panelist Lester Holt asked Kerry to explain why he had voted for—but then criticized—the Patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind law. Kerry gave another lawyerly answer, blaming Bush for implementing both laws improperly. Gilbert asked Kerry, "Would you see yourself as a war president?" Kerry replied with a ridiculous litany: "I'd see myself first of all as a jobs president, as a health care president, as an education president, and also an environmental president." Later, Holt asked, "If it were to come before you today for a vote—the issue of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as that between a man and a woman—would you vote yes or would you vote no?" Kerry replied, "Well, it depends on the terminology ..."

In case you've forgotten why so many people soured on Kerry in 2003: This is why.

2. Edwards' decisiveness. In last year's debates, John Edwards often looked apprehensive. Now he conveys authority, even when (as when he mischaracterized the Defense of Marriage Act) he still doesn't fully understand the issue. He had a great performance in Iowa on Jan. 4, then two unremarkable showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina that squandered crucial opportunities. Tonight he hit another home run (note to Edwards camp: Please find somebody else to quote this time), answering his interrogators crisply, clearly, and without hesitation.

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"Is President Bush's honesty an issue in this campaign?" asked Gilbert. "Yes, it is, absolutely," said Edwards. "Does whether a candidate [has] military experience or not, is that relevant to this campaign?" asked Gilbert. "Of course it's relevant," said Edwards. "Do we not, at some point, have to be honest with some of the workers ... and tell them that some of these jobs, many of these jobs are not coming back?" asked panelist Gloria Borger. "That's absolutely true. ... Some of these jobs are gone. We are not going to get them back," said Edwards. "Would you encourage Gov. Doyle of Wisconsin to go and cut deals with Canada for cheaper prescription drugs?" asked Borger. "Yes, ma'am, I would," said Edwards.

The funny thing is, Edwards' answers are full of nuance and caveats, much like Kerry's. The difference is, Edwards gives the short answer first, then elaborates. Kerry starts with the elaboration and never gets around to the short answer. I remain mystified at how a man who braved bullets can be so terrified of being pinned down on a political issue.

3. The big moment. Edwards evidently came to the debate with one big punch to throw at Kerry. The line was, "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question." It would have been an apt rejoinder to Kerry's answer on trade agreements or gay marriage. Instead, Edwards delivered it in response to Kerry's explanation of his vote for the Iraq war resolution. This was a mistake, because that particular answer of Kerry's was powerful. Kerry began by invoking his service in Vietnam and the lesson he learned: War must always be a last resort. He said a president had to be able to look the parents of dead soldiers in the eye and say he had done everything possible to avoid war. It seemed the worst possible moment for a guy with no military experience to uncork a snarky sound bite.

4. The trade issue. When I was working on the Slate game that helps you choose your candidate, one of the first buttons I clicked was to eliminate candidates who opposed NAFTA. Out went Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Dennis Kucinich, and Al Sharpton. That meant that any voter who wanted an anti-NAFTA candidate—the majority position in most Democratic primaries—would cross out Kerry, Dean, Wes Clark, and Joe Lieberman. With Gephardt out of the way after Iowa, I expected Edwards to use this wedge against Kerry, Dean, and Clark. He did, but not explicitly enough to hurt Kerry.

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Tonight, Gilbert begged Edwards to slug Kerry: "You said the other day that there are obvious differences between you and Sen. Kerry on this issue. What are they?" Edwards took the opportunity to talk about being the son of a mill worker and understanding the plight of Wisconsin factory workers who had lost their jobs. But Edwards made sure to lump Dean together with Kerry: "Sen. Kerry is entitled, as is Gov. Dean, to support free trade, as they always have." Dean, who has ripped NAFTA in other forums, helped Edwards this time by beginning his rebuttal, "I think the free trade agreements were justified, but ..."

My interpretation of this exchange is that Edwards is playing to exterminate Dean on Tuesday, and Dean doesn't much care.

5. War vs. jobs. Edwards tried to distinguish himself, Clinton-style, by insisting, "Jobs is the single most important issue for voters here in Wisconsin. ... They are looking for a president [who] will get up every day and go to work at the White House and fight for their jobs." After Kerry talked about terrorism in response to a question about Bush running as a "war president," Edwards asked, "Why in the world would we let George Bush define the terrain of this debate? What we know is the American people are enormously dissatisfied with the loss of millions of jobs, the fact that he has no health care plan." This is very dicey ground for Edwards. Maybe he'll gain some votes by appearing attentive to jobs and health care. But given his thin political résumé and his military inexperience, I think he'll lose more votes by appearing inattentive to terrorism. It reminds Democrats why they feel safer running Kerry against Bush.

6. The Bush AWOL controversy. This was the debate's first question, and Kerry handled it perfectly. He declined to comment, blamed Bush's mishandling of Iraq on his ignorance of the lessons of Vietnam, chastised Bush for betraying promises to veterans, and left further investigation of Bush's military records to "those of you in the news media."

7. Taxes. Responding to a question about health care, Kerry detoured to stipulate that he would "not raise the taxes on the middle class. I don't want to get rid of the child tax credit: That's a tax increase. I don't want to get rid of the 10 percent bracket: That's a tax increase. I don't want to reinstate the marriage penalty: That's a tax increase." Clearly, Kerry expects the GOP to spend the fall (and summer and spring) calling him a tax hiker. Unlike Dean, Kerry is well-positioned on that issue, and he's wise to use the remaining primary debates to inoculate himself against the charge.

8. Kerry the dove. When Borger asked Kerry "why you are the best person to make the case on special interests against George Bush," Kerry recalled, "I led thousands of veterans and stood up against Richard Nixon and his war in Vietnam. I led the fight against Ronald Reagan and his illegal, unconstitutional war in Central America. ... I took on Noriega, and drugs, and the CIA." Vietnam, Reagan, the CIA—that's a lot of patriotic iconography to tackle, even before you get to Kerry's vote against the 1991 Gulf War resolution. Why is Kerry being so careless about looking like a leftist on foreign policy, when he's so careful not to look like a leftist on taxes? Maybe he thinks his service in Vietnam makes him impregnable on military issues. If so, he may find out he's mistaken.

9. Dean's mellowing. Two months ago, Dean was leaping at opportunities to spank his rivals for being part of the Washington mess. Tonight, he pulled every punch. The first question he got was an invitation to bash Kerry for corruption. Dean scolded Bush instead. Later, Dean was asked whether Kerry and Edwards were partly responsible for the Iraq war. "Sure," Dean conceded in an apologetic tone, adding that he, too, bore responsibility for supporting the 1991 Gulf War. When Borger asked Dean how history would judge the Iraq war, he replied almost casually, "I do not think we were told the truth about why we went to war in Iraq, and I think that's a huge problem." Problem? What happened to all that talk about Bush's dishonesty?

10. Dean's candor. It may be a fatal political flaw, but it's still a moral virtue. Yes, said Dean, your taxes must be raised in order to pay for his programs and balance the budget. No, focusing our military power on Saddam Hussein didn't make you safer. And yes, "If we do what I want to with our trade agreement, you're going to pay higher prices at Wal-Mart, because their stuff is all made in China, and labor costs are going to go up in China." God bless Dean for bringing honesty to a political process rotten with double-dealing and cowardice. That's why I'm counting on him to immediately fire his campaign chairman, Steve Grossman, for trying to slink aboard Kerry's boat even before Dean's has sunk. (Grossman's amazing statement to the New York Times: "If Howard Dean does not win the Wisconsin primary, I will reach out to John Kerry unless he reaches out to me first.") As long as there are Grossmans in the world, we'll always need Deans.