A Dud of a Debate
It was as if all the candidates were aiming for the same bar: okayness. In part, that was due to the debate's structure: four journalists asking questions of the candidates that permitted no give and take between the contenders. It was also due to what has become known as the Lesson of Iowa: going negative hurts. Few elbows were thrown. No spitballs were hurled. Candidates stuck to their stump speeches. Edwards noted that people are "hungry for change in America. They're hungry for change in Washington, D.C. And the truth is, the truth is, that I'm somebody who's been in Washington long enough to see what's wrong with it and how it needs to be changed." Kerry maintained he wanted to take on "special interests" and that he had national security credentials that would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Bush. Joseph Lieberman stressed his "values" and his enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq. Clark pushed his experience as an executive and professed his fealty to Democratic Party principles. Dennis Kucinich blasted the Nafta trade accord and insisted he was the most antiwar candidate, claiming his plan to end the U.S. occupation in Iraq could bring American troops home within 90 days and noting that Dean would let U.S. forces remain there perhaps for years.
Edwards, the onetime superlawyer, botched a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, mischaracterizing it completely while stumbling through his reply.
One reporter asked Edwards to identify the "critical point" in the debate. He accurately replied, "I'm not sure there was a critical point." Edwards did gripe that the format of the debate had prevented him from talking about "a lot of issues that affect people's lives so voters could see what I would do." I asked him to tell us what issues he had in mind. He replied, "What the country is hungry for is an optimistic, positive vision of hope." And he went on to repeat his standard line that there are "two different Americas," one where people have health care and win big under the tax system, one where people do not.
But, I pressed him, what specific issues should have been addressed. He responded by noting that he had proposed banning campaign contributions from lobbyists, implementing more extensive disclosure of lobbying activity, and ending the revolving door between government and lobbying firms. I gently reminded him that he had mentioned all of this during the debate. But he noted he had not had the chance to discuss his plan to improve public schools with bonus pay for teachers in tough school districts. And he repeated a concern he had raised during the debate: none of the candidates is talking about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty. More time in the debate, he noted, was devoted to discussing gay marriage than this troubling situation. "The debate may have been helpful for people to get a general impression of us," he remarked. "But the substantive differences in our views was hard to tell." Still, he added, "I was the candidate who presented an uplifting message of hope."
The Populists of New Hampshire
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is the Polite Populist. On Friday, he visited the Page Belting company in Concord. It was there, almost a year earlier, "where people first saw the Edwards magic," one of his aides told me. She was referring to a session in which Edwards met with some of the firm's employees and the workers became teary while discussing the economic hardships they and their families faced.
Edwards was back now to have a similar discussion with two dozen Page workers. But this time they were surrounded by 150 members of the press. Edwards reeled off his "two Americas" speech, which he has refined to a smooth and seamless indictment of Bush's Washington. There is one America where people get all the health care they need; then there's the America with a health care system that doesn't work for many and is controlled by insurance companies and HMOs. There is one America where affluent communities have wonderful public schools; one America where the schools are troubled. "We shouldn't have two public school systems," Edwards remarked. There are "two governments" in the nation's capital: "one for the insiders...whatever is left is for you."
Edwards did not raise his voice. He did not show anger. This son of a mill worker who became a millionaire superlawyer displayed earnest indignation, quiet outrage. He adopted a "get this" tone. He told the employees, "What goes on in Congress is that you have the lobbyists for the big drug companies and they're all over the place and they come up to members of Congress and say, 'Can you help us on the [Medicare prescription drug] bill?'...And then [the members] says, 'Are we going to see you at the fundraiser tonight."
The Page Belting workers did not respond with "amens." Instead, they knowingly nodded their heads--especially when Edwards referred to predatory credit card companies that sock it to consumers who don't read the fine print. He came armed with supposed solutions, such as banning campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists. "The Washington lobbyists are taking your democracy away from you," he commented, "and we ought to stop it."
Edwards never got mean or dark. He loaded his pitch with feel-good, can-do optimism, insisting his message is "based on politics of hope, based on the politics of what is possible." He noted, "You deserve a president who can make you feel good about the future, good about yourselves again." Then Edwards left in his campaign bus, dubbed the "Real Solutions Express"--which is not to be confused with Kerry's bus, "The Real Deal Express." Will Edwards' kinder, gentler populism play? He does have one heckuva pleasant and persuasive manner. New Hampshire voters--and Democrats elsewhere--looking for populism with a smile and a down-home drawl will be tempted.