Friday, May 9, 2003

Democrats stand divided in first debate
Anthony Schinella/Random Musings

Nine democrats running for president met in South Carolina Saturday night in what has become the earliest organized debate in the history of the nomination process.

A full nine months before the first primary vote will be cast and 19 months before the next general presidential election, the debate seemed too little, too soon. And since it was broadcast at 11:35 p.m. at night on ABC - and on C-Span Sunday - most voters probably didn't see it.

There were some pretty entertaining fireworks. But despite some creative punch lines and smart-ass remarks, there didn't seem to be a whole lot of substance from the candidates. Sure, they can complain that President George Bush has shirked his responsibilities by passing unfunded federal mandates on education and terrorism. As everyone knows, state and local governments are going broke trying to meet the mandates.

However, the democrats offered no real specifics on how they would address some of these issues.

Our state's junior Sen. John Kerry held his own against the rivals but quickly became mired in a bickering match with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean over Iraq.

Since both Kerry and Dean are the frontrunners in the latest polls out of New Hampshire - the location of the first primary - it was no surprise that the two were going to scuffle.

Kerry, who supported the president, said, "At the time I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity. [But] when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I supported the fact that we did disarm [Hussein]."

A former Vietnam veteran and the only candidate with military service, Kerry later said he didn't need a lesson in courage from Dean.

But Dean, who was against the invasion of Iraq, countered that another dictator could rise to power in Iraq, one who could be more of a threat to the nation's security than Saddam Hussein ever was.

"I am delighted to see Saddam Hussein gone," Dean said. "But I think this was the wrong war, at the wrong time, because we have set a new policy of [preemptive] war in this country. I think that was the wrong thing to do."

A quick note to Kerry's staff: Buy the guy a bag of Ricolas. Only actress Brenda Vaccaro and WBOS DJ Amy Brooks sound good talking with a scratchy throat.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich quickly staked out the strongest progressive populist position of the nine, proposing a single-payer health care system, cuts in military spending, and calling for an end to the free trade deals that have shipped millions of jobs to Mexico and China. But he came off slightly scatter-brained - a rare scene since he comes across knowledgeable and passionate from the House floor.

So did the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Known for being bombastic and entertaining, he seemed almost subdued in his presentation. He got the biggest laughs of the night by comparing Bush's tax cuts to Jim Jones' deadly Kool-Aid, tasting good at first but ultimately deadly.

The rivals besieged Mo. Rep. Dick Gephardt's health insurance proposal, accusing it of being too expensive and a giveaway to businesses. But at least Gephardt is trying to put together a plan which is more than the others can say.

Conn. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore's running mate in 2000, positioned himself as the most conservative candidate - verbally supporting numerous republican positions and initiatives.

But towards the end of the debate, a number of candidates like N.C. Sen. John Edwards, Fla. Sen. Bob Graham, and former Ill. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who seemed completely lost during the debate, said democrats would do a better job than Bush, no matter who was elected.

"All the people around this table are good people," Graham said. "They have good values with an intelligent agenda to deal with America's problems. We aren't fighting each other - we are trying to select one of us to be the opponent of George Bush."

While the debate was entertaining, it probably left voters even more confused then they were before. Half the candidates are trying to steer the Democratic Party back to its traditional roots; while the other half are trying to continue to move the party closer to the republicans. The latter strategy - and the negativism around it - is what doomed the party during the 2002 mid-term elections.

Let's hope for competition sake that they can get it together before next fall when the primaries really start to heat up.

Anthony Schinella is editor of The Winchester Star

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