Democratic Debate V: The Scrimmage With Stephanopoulos


Debate liveblogging will make a triumphant return at 10 a.m. ET when the Democrats kick off their debate at Iowa's Drake University, moderated by George Stephanopolous. It's the first since John Edwards demanded the candidates pledge to boycott lobbyist cash, since Barack Obama said our Afghanistan strategy sucks, since Bill Richardson claimed you can choose your sexuality then took it back. More liveblogging from Jim Geraghty here.

10:01: We start with a nice humiliation bath: Chris Dodd manages to keep his knees rigid even after a national audience hears he has lower polls than Dennis Kucinich.

10:02: Did Joe Biden say, "Oh, sheeit?"

10:03: This is what happens when 1)no one is running way ahead of the pack in Iowa and 2)everybody wants to use the semi-frontrunner as a running mate. Given the chance to take a whack at Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton drones about global warming and other "challenges the next president will face." Dodd does that parlor trick where his mouth moves and no one can remember what he said.

10:05: Biden finally takes the bait, sort of. You can grumble about the way Stephanopolous is goading everyone into a fight, but this is a nice stab at accountability. Stand by your press releases, guys. You want Howard Wolfson to shake his voodoo stick on CNN? Hey, defend that in person.

10:06: Bill Richardson finally gets to elbow in with a practised line: "With Hillary you get experience, with Barack you get change. With me, you get both!" A nice way to remind the soft Iowa voter why he likes Richardson while John Edwards (off-screen) scowls and dreams of ponies.

10:08: Obama sticks by his answer on meeting with foreign dictators. His job's made easier by the soft touch everyone else took: His is the only memorable answer.

10:10: Hillary gets one on the nuclear weapons flap, led off with video of her saying "we should take nuclear weapons off the table." She comes out bravely… against hypothetical questions.

10:11: Edwards: "How about a little hope and optimism?" How about you go home and let the grown-ups talk, John?

10:12: "If I was president I would not talk about hypothetical questions." That's not the issue. What's the point of sitting Gravel next to Edwards if he won't slug this guy in the face?

10:14: Gravel sort of wastes his time with a rant about neoconservatives and PNAC.

10:15: Richardson pledges to not make the mistakes President Merkin Muffley made. A brave man.

10:17: Obama gets a clear opportunity to state the truth that Hillary is nigh-unelectable. He lurches all over the place, refusing to say that and instead hinting that we shouldn't break America into "red states and blue states." Stephanopolous nudges him and gets some bluntness, finally. This is a really vital question–Iowans care about electability but they don't like negativity.

10:18: My God, look at Hillary's face on the cutaways. If Obama actually took her up and became her VP I think he'd spend eight years locked in a haunted wine cellar.

10:20: Edwards nails Clinton for not being willing to make crazy promises or douse lobbyists in gasoline and wave a Zippo over them.

10:21: Hillary wins the electability round by saying 1)the Republicans will drive up everybody's negatives (and, uh, force the candidates' spouses to have affairs?) and 2)she knows how to beat them. It's the perfect answer. That's the only kind of candidate-bashing Iowa voters like. And it's believeable, as it's getting hard to imagine one of the wimpy GOP candidates–wheezy Fred Thompson, creepy Mitt Romney, the mellowing Rudy Giuliani–campaigning as tough as Rove/Bush did.

10:24: Edwards comes out bravely against negotiation. Does anyone want to point out that he's basically applying Bush's leadership strategy from war to health care reform?

10:27: Kucinich and Dodd: The bathroom break candidates. I'll miss them when they finally drop out in a flurry of tears and disgrace.

10:28: Man, that's a great Biden ad. He must pledge to make every commercial a single-camera, Errol Morris-style monologue about his wacky adventures.

10:29: Richardson's distinguishing himself (or trying to) by repeating his "leave Iraq now" plan.

10:30: Man, Hillary's good. Her Iraq answer is boilerplate but the way she tightens her vocal chords and uses phrases like "We've got to be tough" and "carefully and responsibly" makes it sound like she's offering something other than the Bush Iraq plan. "Sound like," I said.

10:33: Edwards sneers at Stephanopolous for "trying to start a fight," then takes a swing at the Republican candidates: "George Bush on steroids." Wasn't it Edwards who called the Iraq surge "the McCain doctrine?" Give him some credit, he lands a punch occasionally.

10:36: Biden is basically giving the Bush argument on Iraq: Stick it out for a while and leave some troops or we'll be fighting for generations. Some points for not playing the "my son is going over there" card.

10:38: Hm. Richardson's plan relies on Muslim countries becoming very open to save our skin in Iraq.

10:39: Ah, just when an Iraq fight breaks out and everyone's forced to agree with finger-wagging Joe Biden, Obama returns to his "I'm inexperienced but experience sucks anyway" line.

10:41: Yeah, Obama really has no answer for Iraq. His constant struggle to shift the issue back to the 2002 war vote would be easier if 1)the rest of the field wasn't so ready to discuss the current crisis and 2)Dennis Kucinich wasn't jumping up and down and shouting "What about the funding?"

10:44: What a human landfill John Edwards is. Joe Biden's son is heading to Iraq and he doesn't exploit it. Edwards gets an easy question about prayer and public decisions and dunks twice in the pity well: "Ah prayed when my 16-year old son died, ah prayed when Elizabeth got cancer."

10:45: Gravel pulls his Luna Lovegood act and says something perceptive: "A lot of the people who pray are the ones who want to go to war." Indeed, we'll never hear the word "God" pass President Hillary's lips as much as when she announces the joint invasion of Iran, Pakistan, and Mars.

10:48: This is the first election in a while when the Democrats sound more credible talking about their holy rolling then the Republicans. No one lisps and straddles like Giuliani, no one leans heavy on "Gosh" like Mitt Romney.

10:50: John Edwards, a candidate who'll battle trade agreements and ask of them "Is this good for middle-class working families in America?" Maybe he can finally end this deep depression we've been in since we signed NAFTA.

10:52: Hillary's good at the Iowa jargon, but I have no idea what she just promised Iowa farmers. I'm pretty sure one of them just got promised the deed to my car.

10:54: Obama wants farm subsidy caps. Richardson wants more time to talk. Not getting it he just spits out some words: "Trade, jobs."

10:57: Have to say, this Democratic debate has nothing on the commercials my affiliate's playing. Coming this fall: Women's Murder Club. It's like every other cops-and-crooks hourlong, but it's got a bunch of hot chicks.

11:00: We have a question from Milton of Office Space about the mistakes the candidates have made. It goes to… Mike Gravel! So is Drake University the only four-year educational institution located behind the looking glass?

11:01: Weird joke from Biden about his gaffes. He hasn't gaffed for a while now.

11:02: My worry that Obama could be the next Jimmy Carter isn't erased by his 30-second ramble about "energy sacrifices."

11:03: Oh, John Edwards. In 25 or so seconds he manages to say he was wrong to vote for the Iraq War, he didn't trust George W. Bush, he ignored his gut and trusted George W. Bush, and he was wrong to vote for the Iraq War.

11:04: And Hillary shows Edwards how he should have answered that. Honestly, let's put his wife on the stage for a few debates so he can win one.

11:05: Richardson: "I make about one mistake a week." That would make him our best president since Jefferson.

11:07: Dodd wishes he'd filibustered Alito. Yes, the tragedy of his life is that he didn't take on more lost causes.

11:09: Education's always going to be a liberal/libertarian fault line, isn't it? There's some meaty bashing of No Child Left Behind: Nice! And it's followed by lots of pledges for funding more early education, teacher pay hikes, full-day kindergarten, etc etc.

11:11: I really don't understand Gravel right now. (Ed: Right now?) We need more competition but we need to fund education into your mid-30s or something. He really falls apart trying to link education spending and warfare, but he produces a sweet line for some DJ to spin on his next Nelly Furtado megamix. "Look, Iran–not Iran. Spain!"

11:15: Dodd: "You can't get a mortgage in America today." Thanks, Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Chairman.

11:18: Obama bashes lobbyists, Kucinich bashes market capitalism. "Save the American homeowners!"

11:20: Odd: Obama's written the best autobiography by a presidential contender since maybe Teddy Roosevelt and his answer on "what was a decisive moment in your life" is a snooze. Gravel should talk about reading the Pentagon Papers or the draft, but he mutters something from Dianetics.

11:22: The defining moment of John Edwards' life was his final answer in the 2004 Vice Presidential debate. He's probably right. (I'm joking, but he just shortens that story about his uncle learning to read off PBS that concluded his debate with Cheney.)

11:23: The defining moment of Hillary Clinton's life was… Susan B. Anthony's life.



Hillary Clinton. There's something to be said for how she muddles through the easy questions and nails the "gotcha" or tough questions. Her answer on electability was perfect probably because she's done so much Sun Tzu-ing of her own weaknesses.

Bill Richardson. No gaffes, some good humor, some effective debating on the Iraq issue when he refused to let Joe Biden push him onto his heels. He's not the Huckabee of the race yet but he's getting there, and clearly getting strong enough to leapfrog Edwards or Obama if one of them falls apart.


Mike Gravel. There are times when you smile at this codger lacing into the next president of the United States and times when you realize "Oh my God, he has no idea what he's doing." His answer on education was just embarrassing for all involved.

Me. No one reads Hit and Run on Saturdays Sundays, I'm guessing. Ninety minutes of liveblogging produces less blog comments than Matt Yglesias's post about how he missed most of the debate. (UPDATE: Not true anymore, as the thread filled up once the debate was over. Just a little different from the usual debate threads which follow the debate in real time.)