Maybe the Democratic presidential candidates should rethink their decision not to debate on the Fox New Channel. It couldn’t be worse than the theater of the absurd CNN organized Sunday night at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College – which, it should be noted, was co-sponsored by an even more aggressively conservative media outlet than Fox: the rabidly right-wing Manchester Union-Leader newspaper.

The second major debate between the eight Democrats who would be president broke little new ground. In fairness, that wasn’t CNN’s fault. It’s still too early for the candidates to stray from their talking points; that won’t happen until the desperate days of the late fall and early winter when contenders who recognize that the keys to the Oval Office are slipping from their grasp decide to go for broke.

So Sunday’s debate was, for the most part, a dull dance.

Former North Carolina Senator John Edwards repeated appropriate criticisms of his fellow frontrunners, New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, for failing to take a leadership role in opposing the war in Iraq – while Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd tried to get some attention for the fact that they actually been outspoken in their opposition to giving President Bush another blank check to pursue his war of whim.

The former First Lady said she’d make “dear husband” Bill some sort of roving ambassador, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel said they’d do the same. While the other candidates made vague promises that they won’t even try to keep regarding what they’d do in their first 100 days in office, Dodd stood out by saying he would use his first day to renew and restore basic liberties that have been undermined by George Bush’s presidential edicts, decrees and secret schemes. Richardson was equally impressive when he suggested – correctly – that a U.S. threat to boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics could play a vital role in ending the genocide in Darfur.

Unfortunately, Dodd did not get a chance to speak in anything more than the shortest sound bite about resurrecting the Constitution. And Richardson never got to explain that, because of China’s trade links with the Sudanese government, and because of Beijing’s obsession with making next year’s Olympics a success, the threat of a U.S. boycott of the games could be dramatically more effective than most such gambits.

Despite the fact that this was a two-hour debate, moderator Wolf Blitzer acted throughout the night as if he was hosting “Beat the Clock.” Of course, a moderator must keep a crowded field under control. But the candidates weren’t the ones who were off the leash. Rather, it was the CNN anchor who repeatedly interrupted contenders who were trying to explain the basics of their positions, cut off thoughful answers in mid-sentence and failed to follow up when significant points of difference – on issues such as trade policy – were thrown into the mix.

Worst of all, Blitzer tried to take complex issues and reduce them to show-of-hand stunts.

At one point, Blitzer tossed a wild hypothetical at the candidates: If they knew where Osama bin Laden would be for 20 minutes, would they move to eliminate him even if that meant killing “innocent civilians”? Blitzer’s question raised fundamental questions: What do we mean by innocent civilians? Are we talking about children? How many would die? Could bin Laden be captured? Would taking him out compromise a flow of intelligence that might provide information that could prevent future attacks on Americans?

Kucinich tried to explore subtleties of international law and common sense, but Blitzer shut him down. Instead of a nuanced discussion on how the U.S. might operate in a post-Bush world, Blitzer simply demanded that candidates raise their hands if they were for getting bin Laden.

Moments later, after Delaware Senator Joe Biden suggested using military force to end the genocide in Darfur, Blitzer was again calling for a show of hands.

No room for a discussion about what sort of force – a no-fly zone or troops on the ground, an international coalition or a U.S.-led expedition, a full-fledged attack on another Muslim state or peacekeeping in the desert – just hands in the air by candidates who were for marching on Africa.

Blitzer was determined to race past anything akin to a serious discussion. And through most of the night, he got away with it.

Finally, as the moderator pressed his “who’s-against-genocide” show and tell, Clinton called him on his antics. While the other candidates grumbled about the host’s absurdly overbearing approach, the New York senator pointedly declared, “We’re not going to engage in these hypotheticals. I mean one of the jobs of a president is being very reasoned in approaching these issues. And I don’t think it’s useful to be talking in these kinds of abstract hypothetical terms.”

She got a deserved round of applause from a crowd that was as annoyed as the candidates were with Blitzer.


John Nichols’ new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”