Democratic Debate VIII: The One Nobody's Watching


The Democrats, following the GOP, are making the abysmal Des Moines Register debate their last dog-and-pony show before the Iowa Caucus. Occasional commentary will appear here, but you're probably flipping around looking for the steroids-in-baseball press conference.

The debate's online here.

2:02: I'm watching the Fox broadcast of this debate, which features a focus group and moving dial. Obama's bland answer on balancing the budget blows the yellow and blue lines off the screen.

2:03: Richardson's specifics—line-item veto, balanced budget amendment—get less fuzzies than Obama's pablum. Breaking news: Obama is more charismatic than Richardson. (Interestingly, liberals like the phrase "no more earmarks" more than moderates.)

2:05: Biden: Slash the hell out of waste in the military budget. Good answer, and I predict he will win the 1988 presidential election.

2:08: Edwards knocks around corporations who've "literally taken over the government. We need a president who's willing to take these powers over." Two things Iowans love: Subsidies and fascism!

2:10: I wasn't around for the mid-1990s balanced budget amendment debate, but if we change the Constitution to demand balanced budgets how do we bypass it "in times of war" like Richardson suggests? By declaring war? Yeah, well, nobody does that.

2:13: Biden calls paradigm "a fancy word my conservative friends use," and rejects the idea that we need to pay for things—but let's cut military spending, you know, for kicks.

2:15: Obama tries some of the Edwards tonic and, to me, sounds more credible and less crazy than Edwards—nail corporations that are cheating on their taxes, don't just attack their foundations with a sledgehammer. The focus group seems less enthused, though.

2:17: Sorry, I don't like the DMR idea of "fairness." Dodd and Biden and Richardson, who'll be back at their old jobs in two months, keep getting questions. Obama and Clinton (less Edwards) are very occasionally thrown a talking point opportunity.

2:20: Senator Clinton, are we spending too much on entitlements? Yes, which is why we need more of them. Boldly, she wants to "convene a bipartisan commission" on Social Security.

2:23: "Universal health care is a human right," says Bill Richardson, as I destroy copies of my column on his libertarian instincts.

2:25: They're in free statement mode. Obama sounds like Obama; Edwards sounds like Ralph Nader.

2:26: Biden's "voted against every trade agreement since CAFTA," giving him a mighty, 2-year record voting against trade agreements. (He's been in the Senate since 1973.)

2:30: China killed John Edwards's daddy!

2:32: Maybe this is my red-hot anti-Edwards bias talking, but I think Obama's doing a good job answering the questions with his pet issues. He talks airily about amending NAFTA and then pulls Gitmo out of nowhere… as something we need to look at to improve our image in the world. The dial (I'm addicted to it) hurtles up.

2:37: Big prediction here: None of them are going to say anything contentious about energy. I'm taking a Doddbreak to get some water.

2:41: As Clinton and Obama and Edwards talk about "enlisting people" in their Five Year Plans for Glorious Energy Independence, it reminds me a little of Ron Paul's rhetoric. Not, obviously, his rhetoric about policy. Paul, who's only recently started thinking about actually being president, realizes that an estimated 434 members of the House disagree with him about policy. (Give or take Paul Broun.) So he envisions the REVOLution continuing, pressuring members, holding rallies, etc. It's similar to the scenario Edwards paints for when he's president and the Senate disagrees with his plan to take away their health care. He'll stuff it in their face, campaigning in their districts, finding opponents to kick their asses, etc. The last time a president really tried that, or something like it, was when Woodrow Wilson worked himself to death in 1918… still, I wonder how the model would work today.

2:46: Or, as Geraghty puts it: "A big theme is that if you just make something a high enough priority, solutions appear and the situation gets better."

2:50: Edwards's education solutions include univeral pre-K, that moderate idea that was rejected by California's hard-hearted right-wing voters, and a "national teaching university" ("like the Naval Academy"), which I'm pretty sure Jonathan Pryce graduated from in Brazil.

2:59: Would Biden endorse Obama (or anyone else) if they just agreed to call their Iraq strategy "the Biden Plan"?

3:02: "There sure are a laaaht of promises for that first year" says Edwards, who has pledged to arm-wrestle every member of Congress with his right arm and strangle the Fortune 500 with his left arm. (Is he ambidextrous? I hope not.)

[An update on yesterday's debate: Turns out Ron Paul got the second-least amount of time to speak, only 13 seconds more than Fred Thompson after he refused to answer a question. Duncan Hunter got a minute more than Paul, and Alan Keyes got about 90 seconds more.]

3:06: It is very important to get Joe Biden on the record about his racial gaffes, because he is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. If he wasn't, this would be such a waste of time.

3:09: "I have been fighting them my entire life, and I have been winning my entire life," says Vice President John Edwards. Former Vice President Dick Cheney could not be reached for comment.

3:15: Good stuff from Hillary on signing statements—she's said it before, but I wonder if it's sinking in. And how much Democratic voters want the next president to power down and hand back the powers Bush got.

3:16: John Edwards rejects George W. Bush's expansion of executive power. "We don't have a royal presidency," says the guy who wants to lock companies out of legislative discussions and take away congressional health care.

3:18: Godwin alert! Chris Dodd remembers an America "where Nuremberg used to mean something."

3:23: What's everybody love about Iowa? Dodd loves their "independence." As long as they love desperation, boredom, and flop sweat, I think he's got an upset coming.

I felt a twinge of sympathy for Dennis Kucinich at one point, when Washburn asked a black-and-white question about repealing NAFTA. I just pictured him at home, tossing his bowl of Kix at the TV and yanking off his tiny necktie.

Done good
1) Edwards—He spent the year slowly, slowly falling in the Iowa polls as he slashed up the national frontrunners. With some difficulty, he's tamped down that instinct and started just slashing at corporations, job-killers, stuff Iowans hate. He's morphing from Gephardt 2004 (who attacked Dean and imploded) to Gephardt 1988 (who claimed "America is in decline" and won).

2) Obama—Obviously well-prepared for this but elastic enough to get laughs, which he's never been very good at. As good as Edwards at squeezing his arguments into the narrow spaces of the questions. I don't think his policy prescriptions are any less radical than Edwards, but he sounded a little more realistic arguing for them.

Done alright

3) Biden—Calmer and less obviously whiny than he's been before, fairly convincing on his key issues.

4) Clinton—No huge mistakes, but now that everyone's looking for her weakness, she looks pretty weak. The attack on Edwards and Obama wasn't just telegraphed, it was sent by pony express. The laughter when Obama was asked about his backers from the Clinton administration came off as arrogant. There's a balance to be struck between "I've got experience from the 90s" and "I'm going to turn the Wayback Machine to 1993" and she didn't quite strike it.

Ain't done nothing
5) Richardson—Just didn't break through.

6) Dodd—This is the last debate you'll see him in. Wave goodbye!