The third Democratic presidential debate was an orgy of agreement

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June 29 2007 8:42 AM

The Nice Nice Debate

An orgy of agreement at the third Democratic presidential debate

Democratic Debate. Click image to expand.
Clinton, Biden, Richardson, Edwards, Obama, Kucinich, Gravel, and Dodd

The Democratic presidential candidates met at Howard University not to hold a debate but to have an agreement. The night was devoted to the issues that particularly affect the minority community—poverty, education, and criminal justice—which hadn't been much addressed in the first two debates. Everyone had roughly the same prescriptions—more money, attention, and commitment to whatever problem they were addressing. They didn't distinguish themselves from each other so much as build upon their opponent's previous answer to the question. This can only go on so long. After several candidates had given the same answer to a question, you got the feeling that those who were last in line had so little new to say that one of them might have just given up and said, "Ditto."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The candidates each tried to show that they had a genuine commitment to the minority community. As radio host Tom Joyner pointed out in his introductory remarks, the African-American community is sick of politicians whose promises don't last beyond the desperate vote-grubbing period before election time. The candidates mostly tried to show they were sincere by offering earnest bromides. The choppy format didn't allow for much more. If there was any competition at all among the candidates, it was to show which could offer more facts about incarceration rates, educational disadvantages, tax burdens, and other issues of concern in the minority community.

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Howard University was Barack Obama's venue. As the only African-American candidate, he received the loud shout-outs from the audience. Others thanked the historic black university for holding the forum. Obama could say more. "This is where Thurgood Marshall and the team from Brown crafted their strategy," he said, referring to the famous Supreme Court case which Marshall argued and which had taken a hit that very day. "And if it hadn't been for them, I would not be standing here today."

He spoke truth to the audience in a way the other candidate's could not, calling on African-Americans to end the social stigma attached to talking about AIDS. Sen. Joe Biden gave a version of the same speech, and at least one member of the audience didn't take it well. When the camera cut away to Al Sharpton, he was scowling with such intensity you'd think he was trying to will Biden from the stage.

Though Obama clashed with John Edwards in their last meeting, he was particularly solicitous of the former North Carolina senator this time. "John is exactly right," he said about early childhood education. "John is right on this one," he said about treating AIDS. On government contracts for Hurricane Katrina cleanup, Obama said, "Let me finish John's thought, because it's an important one."

How nice. The senator must have really felt bad for clocking Edwards at the last debate. Or, he doesn't think Edwards is a threat any more and wants to court his voters who eventually will come to him as the non-Hillary alternative.

Obama talked about Edwards, and so did Edwards. He kept pointing out that he'd been working on poverty issues for a long time. Fair enough. He has. But did he have to go on about it so much? More impressive was his actual command of the details. It was clear he had actually thought about these issues. When asked what he would do to combat problem of HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, he was specific and commanding.

Edwards was helped by the fact that Bill Richardson immediately preceded him. The New Mexico governor, who has momentum in Iowa and New Hampshire, turned in a little better performance than his previous two lackluster debate showings, but on this question he floundered. Though the question was about AIDS rates in America, he talked about AIDS in Africa. As he meandered, Richardson gave credit to president Bush for his Millennium Challenge account, which is the White House program for foreign aid not AIDS.

Hillary Clinton, who continues to lead in all of the Democratic primary polls, once again proved why she's up there. She knew her facts and could easily refer to her 30-year history working to help impoverished kids. In a night full of high-flown rhetoric, high-grade pandering, and denunciations of the current state of affairs, she won the evening's biggest applause. During the discussion of AIDS, she said, "Let me just put this in perspective: If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country." (Can you imagine? Fox News, which spasms when a white girl misses curfew, would create an entire new network.)

Clinton even demonstrated that belly laugh that former DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe talks about as she reacted to a joke by debate host Tavis Smiley. Unfortunately, the microphone picked it up.

The night wasn't a complete kumbaya event. Longshot candidate Mike Gravel was on stage, too. If elected he will apparently come to your house and actually spit in your cornflakes. On the final question of the evening, about the crisis in Darfur and America's moral role in world affairs, he said: "We have to have a president who has moral judgment. Most of the people on this stage with me do not have that judgment, and have proven it by the simple fact of what they've done." The candidates were otherwise so solicitous of one another, it felt like everyone would get a cabinet post in the administration of whichever of them got elected. Gravel may get a post too: ambassador to the Taliban.

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