NEW YORK—It's getting ugly, and thank God. After two debates in which the Democratic presidential candidates largely refrained from smacking each other around, tonight's CNBC/Wall Street Journal debate came as a relief. A hint of we've-gotta-do-something desperation seems to have afflicted the stagnant candidates, or at least the ones who were thought to be serious contenders: Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman.
But what wasn't said by those candidates, and by their campaigns, was an interesting as what was said. Here's a list of the headlines on some of the press releases circulated by the various campaigns during the debate: Edwards: "ANOTHER KERRY EXAGGERATION"; Gephardt: "Dean wrong: NAFTA is Bad for Vermont," and "Edwards is once again 'grossly mischaracterizing' Gephardt's position on tax cuts"; Kerry: "DEAN TRIES TO TAKE CREDIT FOR DRUG PROGRAM HE TRIED TO KILL," "DEAN GETS IT WRONG AGAIN," and "ANOTHER OUTRAGEOUS DEAN CLAIM"; Lieberman: "Kerry's Trade Flip-Flop," and "Dick Gephardt's Big-Spending Proposals Would Break the Bank." As with the two previous Democratic National Committee debates, the top-tier candidates (and those, like Gephardt and Edwards, that pretend to be top-tier) ignored the also-ran candidates Braun, Graham, Kucinich, and Sharpton, and focused their attacks on each other and Howard Dean (who continued, for the most part, to play the above-the-fray front-runner). But wait a minute: Didn't a 10th candidate join the race last week?
The story of this debate was supposed to be how Wesley Clark would acquit himself, and the answer is that he did just fine. He couldn't quite answer his first question, when he was asked to explain why he was a Democrat—in fact one element of his answer, "there was only one party to come to," sounded opportunistic rather than principled. But after that initial stumble, he skated through gaffe-free, and he appears to be smartly positioning himself as the anti-war fiscal conservative who is more fiscally conservative than Howard Dean on taxes and trade.
But the real story of the debate turned out to be the same as the old story: Let's all gang up to try to stop Howard Dean. The former Vermont governor continues to be attacked from the right by his opponents, who are using the same tactics that the GOP would surely use against him in a general election: 1) He's a flip-flopping politician who will say anything to get elected; 2) he's weak and inexperienced on national security; 3) he's going to raise taxes on average Americans.
As a result, Dean is facing several candidates who are serving as the functional equivalents of stand-ins for Bush. Kerry is using the "tax families" that Bush used to great effect in the 2000 election to show how changes in tax rates affect specific American families. Lieberman is at least as hawkish as Bush on terrorism and Iraq, and probably more of a free-trader. And now Clark comes along as the candidate who possesses at least the appearance of an unbeatably impressive aura on defense and national security matters (even if substantively he agrees with Dean). During the debate, Kerry accuses Dean of wanting to raise taxes by $1,000 on 32 million couples, and by $3,000 on one specific firefighting-and-teaching New Hampshire couple. Lieberman accuses Dean of abandoning "the Clinton-Gore record" on middle-class tax cuts and trade. And Clark doesn't say anything about Dean, but when you're a general, even an anti-war one, you don't have to.
Democratic partisans are probably dismayed by all the criticism, but the truth is that if Dean wins the nomination, he'll have been made stronger by the gantlet he's being forced to run. And if he can't beat what he calls "Bush Lite," how can he expect to beat the real thing?
Besides, despite the attacks, Dean came out of the debate OK. But I think he's going to be in trouble if he doesn't come up with some sort of tax cut (under the guise of the "tax reform" he promised in a Wall Street Journal op-ed). For the first time in any of the three debates, his armor was just a tiny bit dented. The funny thing is the candidates who are doing the denting—Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman—aren't going to benefit from it. The Unmentioned 10th Candidate is.
But even with No. 10's quietly impressive performance, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman appear to be content to ignore him for the time being, to wait and see if his early support dissipates. My question for their campaigns: Isn't that the mistake you made with Howard Dean?