Thursday night’s wide-ranging and refreshingly substantive debate between the four remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination did little to slow the momentum of frontrunner John Kerry as the likely-to-be-definitional Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses approach. Kerry outmaneuvered his chief opponent on a key issue, and showed some skills that will likely serve him well in a November contest with Republican George W. Bush. But the Massachusetts senator made at least one statement – regarding presidential war making — that ought to concern anyone who still thinks Congress should have a say on matters of war and peace.

Here are some highlights and lowlights from what is likely to be one of the last debates of the primary season:

KERRY TRUMPED JOHN EDWARDS ON THE TRADE ISSUE. The North Carolina senator has made criticism of free trade policies a central theme of his campaign to upset Kerry in “Super Tuesday” primaries and caucuses in states such as California, New York, Ohio, Georgia and Minnesota. And Edwards has plenty of ammunition for the fight, as Kerry’s record on trade issues is difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush. But, when the trade issue came up during Thursday’s Los Angeles Times/CNN debate, Kerry was ready for Edwards. And he hit the North Carolina senator where it hurt.

After Edwards suggested that the frontrunner was changing his pro-free trade tune with recent statements about the need to insert protections for workers and the environment into trade agreements, Kerry suggested to voters that Edwards is, himself, something of a newcomer to the fair-trade movement.

Asked if he was “shocked” by Edwards’ focus on the trade issue, Kerry said, “Well, I am surprised, because in his major speech on the economy in Georgetown this past June, John never even mentioned trade. And the fact is that, just the other day in New York, in The New York Times, he is quoted as saying to The New York Times that he thought NAFTA was important for our prosperity. Now he’s claiming that he was against it and these other agreements.”

Then, Kerry added, “I have said clearly for a number of years now, we have to have labor and environment standards in all of our trade agreements. That is exactly the same position as John Edwards.”


From an issue standpoint, that was as close as Kerry and Edwards got to clashing. For the most part, they simply avoided taking shots at one another. That was good for Kerry, and devastating for Edwards, because polls show the North Carolinian continues to trail in all the big states that will vote March 2. Edwards is drawing large crowds, and he has momentum in Georgia and upstate New York. He has won some important newspaper endorsements in California, from the Sacramento Bee and the L.A. Weekly. But, in debate after debate, he has refused to take the bait when questioners have offered him opportunities to draw clear distinctions between himself and Kerry. On Thursday night, when he really needed to make those distinctions, Edwards instead sounded like he was more concerned about getting his name on Kerry’s list of prospective running mates.

Edwards was not helped by the fact that, while he kept the gloves on, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich was far more aggressive than in the past.

Distancing himself from both Edwards and Kerry on the trade issue, Kucinich delivered the most useful critique of the World Trade Organization yet heard in a presidential debate. “Throughout this campaign I have visited city after city where I’ve seen grass growing in parking lots where they used to make steel, they used to make cars, they used to make ships. And let me tell you something: NAFTA and the WTO must be canceled. Let me tell you why. The WTO, for example, it doesn’t permit any alterations. When we, as members of Congress, sought from the administration a Section 201 procedure to stop the dumping of steel into our markets so we could stop our American steel jobs from being crushed, the World Trade Organization ruled against the United States and said we had no right to do that. Now, the World Trade Organization, as long as we belong to it, will not let us protect the jobs. This is the reason why we have outsourcing going on right now. We can’t tax it. We can’t put tariffs on it. And that’s why I say, in order to protect jobs in this country and to be able to create a enforceable structure for trade, we need to get out of NAFTA, get out of the WTO, stop the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, stop the Central American Free Trade Agreement.”

On the trade issue, which Edwards has sought to make his own, the winners Thursday night were Kerry, on style, and Kucinich, on content.

KERRY SOUNDED SCARY ON THE SUBJECT OF MILITARY ADVENTURISM: After explaining that, “No. I do not regret my vote” for the resolution that authorized President Bush to use force in Iraq, Kerry said, “Let me make it very clear: We did not give the president any authority that the president of the United States didn’t have. Did we ratify what he was doing? Yes. But Clinton went to Haiti without the Congress. Clinton went to Kosovo without the Congress. And the fact is, the president was determined to go, evidently. But we changed the dynamics by getting him to agree to go to the United Nations and to make a set of promises to the nation.”

Apart from the question of whether the Congress actually “changed the dynamics” of Bush’s march toward war, Kerry again appeared to embrace the view that presidents can go to war without Congressional approval. The comments Thursday night echoed stratements Kerry made in the debate before Wisconsin’s February 17 primary.

Amazingly, no one, not even Kucinich or the Rev. Al Sharpton, let alone the media questioners, challenged Kerry to explain his view regarding the advice and consent that the Constitution says Congress is required to provide before presidents start wars. During the 1990s, a number of members of Congress, most notably U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, challenged the Clinton administration’s decisions to intervene in the Balkans and other parts of the world without clear Congressional approval. “There seems to be an informal understanding that, despite the fact that the Constitution says the Congress must declare wars, and despite the fact that the War Powers Act is good law, the Congress is simply going to ignore its duties,” Feingold complained at the time. “There has been a willing surrender of Congressional authority to an aggrandizing White House. It suits both their purposes. The Administration does not want to endure tough questioning about what it is doing around the world, and the Congress does not seem to want to take responsibility for deciding whether the country should be engaged in wars all over the planet.”

Kerry stood with Clinton and against those who sought to assert the role of Congress in decisions about going to war. It should come as little surprise that now, as he seeks the presidency, he remains enthusiastic about extending the power of the executive. But shouldn’t he at least have been asked to explain whether he thinks Feingold and others are wrong to assert the right and responsibility of Congress to provide advice and consent before the U.S. goes to war.

It is notable that, in 1970, when Kerry first ran for Congress, he told a reporter, “I’m an internationalist. I’d like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations.” That sounded suitably anti-war, but Massachusetts anti-war activists wisely decided that year to back a candidate with a deeper understanding of the Constitution and of the role of Congress, Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School. Drinan won the seat and, citing Section 1, Article 8, of the Constitution, he promptly wrote a resolution to impeach then-President Nixon for his illegal bombing of Cambodia. The impeachment resolution won the support of twelve members of the House Judiciary Committee.

Boston attorney John Bonifaz, who is 2003 filed suit on behalf of a group of soldiers and members of Congress to challenging the Bush administration’s authority to go to war, says that, in the aftermath of the Iraq war debate, it is important for this year’s Democratic National Convention to adopt a platform plank that affirms the party’s support for Constitutional controls on war making. “The policy of the party should be to oppose further erosion of the war powers clause of the Constitution,” says Bonifaz, the author of Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush (Nation Books). “The party should say, ‘Never again should a president be allowed to go to war as George Bush did.'”

On the basis of what he had to say Thursday night, it would be interesting to see whether John Kerry would support or oppose such a plank.

SOCIALISM VERSUS CAPITALISM: Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate, Kucinich was explaining how a single-payer national health care system “would provide all coverage for everyone, all medically necessary procedures, plus vision care, dental care, mental health care.” Moderator Larry King exclaimed, “In other words, socialism?”

Kucinich shot back, “Wait a minute. You know what? What we have now, Larry, what we have now, what we have now, Larry, is predatory capitalism which makes of the American people a cash crop for the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies.”

Over the sound of thunderous applause from the studio audience, King replied, “Well, said.”