MILWAUKEE—We're at the point in the movie where you know how it's going to end, but you stay up late to watch anyway, no matter how painful it gets. The only reason we're here is to watch the beheading of Howard Dean, one reporter declares in the press room after Sunday night's debate. But didn't we see that part already? The end of Dean's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination is winding up with the leisurely pace of the interminable conclusion of The Return of the King. After New Hampshire, there's been nothing but denouement.
Wisconsin was supposed to be Dean's dramatic last stand. Instead, it has all the excitement of the Missouri primary, but at least Missouri had the excuse that there weren't any candidates there. Members of the Dean campaign staff used Saturday to tour the Miller brewery—some are now sporting Miller High Life lapel pins—and I mentioned that I thought that was a pretty smart use of their free day, since Dean was in Vermont that night watching his son's final high-school hockey game. "They're pretty much all free days now," a campaign staffer replied.
But Dean isn't the only candidate facing a death watch. I hear rumors before the debate that both John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich are dropping out. I don't believe either rumor, but I can't decide whether it's more shocking that people believe Edwards is leaving or that Kucinich is.
Kucinich will never drop out. He's said so several times, and he's the one candidate who I believe means everything that comes out of his mouth. He really means it when he talks about the "militarization of thought," about being a "peace president," and about wanting to "change the metaphor of our society from war to peace." He was serious when he said in the spin room after Sunday's debate that unless we pull out of Iraq, "we're going to have a draft." Irony is not the long suit of the man who extended his wingspan Saturday night in front of a few hundred Democrats and helicoptered silently for several long seconds before shouting "No strings! No strings! No strings! No strings! I'll take you to the White House with no strings attached!" (Mean joke: Sure, he's got no strings to hold him down, but he still needs to be turned into a real candidate.) I feel bad about that joke—not bad enough not to print it—because, as Christopher Hitchens wrote last week, "Dennis Kucinich is the sort of guy who we need in politics." My wife thinks Kucinich is great, except for his crazy positions. I think that's about right.
As for Edwards, what's the point of winning the battle to be the last man standing against Kerry if you're not going to follow through on your long-shot strategy? Edwards did better than expected in Iowa after being endorsed by the state's largest newspaper, followed by a superior performance in the state's final debate. Well, Edwards did pretty well Sunday night—it's fairer to say that Kerry did poorly—and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel just endorsed him.
How bad was Kerry's night? It wasn't disastrous, but it's as bad as I've seen him. He sounded like the meandering, orotund Kerry of last summer. His answers to questions about diversity and gay marriage were muddled incoherence, and he claimed that it wasn't his fault that the Bush administration has abused the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the congressional Iraq war resolution. But if you vote for broadly written laws that are abused by the administration in power when you passed them, aren't you at least partly to blame for the consequences? You wouldn't let your 6-year-old drive the family car and then blame him for the accident. And you can be certain that if the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, and the war were popular with Democratic voters, Kerry would be taking credit for them.
Edwards fired off the night's best line in response to Kerry's tortuous answer to a question about whether he feels "any degree of responsibility for the war and its costs and casualties": "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes or no question. The answer to your question is: of course; we all accept responsibility for what we did." (The Dean campaign followed up with a press release stating only, "Memo to John Edwards: You are so right.")
But I don't think that moment offsets the fact that Edwards is torching his centrist reputation with his antitrade rhetoric. Granted, it's not only him. Alleged liberal Howard Dean was the only candidate on stage willing to unabashedly defend the passage of free trade agreements such as NAFTA ("I think the free trade agreements were justified"), though he does want to change them now. Kerry seemed evasive when he defended his votes for NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China by citing side agreements that dealt with labor and environmental standards.
But Edwards goes much further than Dean and Kerry. His campaign issued a press release trumpeting his votes against "fast track" and against trade agreements with Chile, Singapore, Africa, and the Caribbean. And on stage, he criticized Dean and Kerry for supporting "free trade, as they always have." The anti-NAFTA consensus was the most striking thing to me about Sunday's debate. Was it really more than 10 years ago that Al Gore handed that picture of Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley to Ross Perot on CNN?
Later in the debate, Edwards toned down his rhetoric. "The truth is, some of these jobs are gone," he said. "We're not going to get them back." And I was grateful that no candidate elected to bash Greg Mankiw, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (as Kerry did in a speech Saturday night), for suggesting that the outsourcing of some jobs is good for the American economy in the long run. Bush administration economists have told enough lies—Mankiw's predecessor asserted that there was no connection between the deficit and interest rates, despite writing about the connection in his own textbook—that they deserve some applause when they tell an unpopular truth.