ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—All eyes are on Washington tonight, but the Democrats, unfortunately, are in Albuquerque. In the press room before the first "official" debate of the Democratic presidential primary season (which inaugurates "the final pre-primary phase of the presidential election marathon," according to co-moderator Ray Suarez), a couple of journalists grumble that they'd rather be watching the debut of the NFL season with the rest of the country. "Redskins by three, Dean by six" is the joke about the early line for the two contests.
It's the first event for Howard Dean in his new role as the race's presumptive front-runner, and he marches into Popejoy Hall on the University of New Mexico campus with a screaming, chanting ("We want Dean! We want Dean!") throng of a couple of hundred following in his wake. He looks like a prize fighter with his entourage before a championship bout, and I sidle up next to him and tell him he ought to be wearing a boxer's robe. "Yeah, a red velvet robe I can fling off," he laughs.
Unfortunately for Dean, there are degrees of front-runnerdom. Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, and Dean all spend the morning at different events with members the "Texas Eleven," the Texas state legislators hanging out in Albuquerque to prevent the Republicans' efforts to redistrict Texas' congressional districts. (They're now presumably the "Texas Ten," after one fled back to Texas.) When Dean arrives for his meeting at the Albuquerque Marriott, a local TV cameraman turns to me and asks, "Who's this guy?" It's Howard Dean, I tell him. The cameraman's response: "Is he a candidate?"
The buzz among the press corps before the debate is that John Kerry is finally going to go toe to toe with Dean, in an attempt to close the double-digit lead that the former Vermont governor has opened over Kerry in New Hampshire. But it's wallflower Joe Lieberman who pummels Dean instead. Rocky showed up to fight Apollo Creed, but somehow he ended up in the ring with Paulie.
Lieberman's attack on Dean elicits excited "ooohs" from the reporters watching the debate on television in the hall's basement. Lieberman brings up Dean's opposition to trading with countries that do not have the same labor and environmental standards as the United States, and he calls it "stunning": "He said he would not have bilateral trade agreements with any country that did not have American standards. That would mean we would not have trade agreements with Mexico, with most of the rest of the world. That would cost us millions of jobs." Then, after peppering Dean with jabs, Lieberman rears back to throw the knockout punch: If Dean were elected president and carried out his promised trade policies, "The Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression."
Later, to drive the point home, the Lieberman campaign circulates a press release entitled, "HOWARD DEAN'S PROTECTIONIST TRADE POLICY WOULD DEVASTATE AMERICA'S ECONOMY."
Dean counters by insisting that trade agreements need mere "international standards," not American standards, on labor and the environment. But that's not what he told the Washington Post (as the Lieberman campaign helpfully points out in its release) on Aug. 25. More important from my perspective, it's the exact opposite of what Dean told me when I rode with him in July on his campaign van in Iowa. When I asked Dean if he meant just general "standards" or "American standards," he insisted that he would demand that other countries adopt the exact same labor, environmental, health, and safety standards as the United States. But the audience wasn't riding with me, and they rally to Dean in his time of need, applauding wildly. Lieberman is left to lamely reply, "That's a reassuring change of position."
Dean makes another shocking flip-flop in the debate. After repeatedly saying on previous occasions that the United States can't abandon its obligations in Iraq, he now implies that he wants to withdraw American troops from the region: "We need more troops. They're going to be foreign troops, not more American troops, as they should have been in the first place. Ours need to come home."
All the candidates support an increase in the number of foreign troops in Iraq, but Dean appears to have veered into Dennis Kucinich territory, something he had scrupulously avoided before. If Dean keeps this up, after flip-flops on trade, Social Security, and foreign policy, he risks losing a considerable element of his Carter-esqe "I will never to lie to you" appeal. Dean was already having trouble reconciling his promise that he wanted to renegotiate NAFTA and other trade agreements with his insistence that the United States must trade with other countries in order to turn them into sedate, bourgeois societies. Fairly or not, self-styled straight-talking candidates are held to a higher standard of honesty, and Dean's having trouble meeting it.
The best thing Dean does during the debate is refuse to pander to the Albuquerque audience by spewing tortured Spanish, as Lieberman, Edwards, and especially Kucinich do. He does, however, refer to Latin America as a "hemisphere." And his one specific appeal to the Hispanic/Latino voters that are supposed to be the focus of this debate is nonsensical. Dean insists that racial profiling "doesn't work," and then follows the sentiment with this one: "For 9/11 to have affected our immigration policy with Latin America is ridiculous. The last I checked, not one of those 19 hijackers was Latino." Isn't that racial profiling?
But for the most part, Dean resists making pandering references to Hispanics and Latinos during the debate, and he comes out the better for it. In the morning, during his visit with the fugitive Texas senators, Dean denounced racial gerrymandering. He said that America has changed over the past couple decades and that minorities no longer need to be packed into separate districts in order to achieve representation in Congress and in state legislatures. "That time is past," Dean said. And when he was asked how his campaign planned to appeal to Hispanic votes, he simply and admirably segued into his generic stump speech about health care.
But after the Democratic denunciation of President Bush and the Republicans for wanting to pack minorities into separate, ghettoized congressional districts, there was something distasteful about debate co-moderator Maria Elena Salinas' assertion that this debate was "the first time ever that a debate will emphasize issues of interest to Hispanic voters as well as to the general electorate," with its implication that previous presidential debates appealed to the general electorate but not to the Hispanics that are a subset of that electorate. After all, if it's wrong to pack minorities into separate congressional districts, why is it OK to pack them into separate presidential debates?