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.”