In the Arena

Democratic Debate

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A few thoughts. First of all, it was almost nostalgic seeing them all on the same Iowa platform for the last time–even felt a twinge for the missing Kucinich–because this has been one of the better, more substantive Democratic fields I’ve covered. They have identified the most important issues–multilateralism overseas, comprehensive health insurance reform, global warming, a more equitable tax system–and taken brave, detailed stands on them.

On the down side, their positions on trade (implausibly thinking that other countries will submit to our labor and environmental standards, however desirable that idea might be) and No Child Left Behind (irresponsibly taking teachers, who need to be more, not less, accountable for the success of their students, off the hook) represent wholesale pandering to special interests of the sort that Democrats never acknowledge–the labor unions. There are ways to strengthen and expand the middle class, especially those affected by changes in the global economy–universal health insurance, wage insurance, tuition tax credits, jobs programs to repair infrastructure and conserve energy. That’s where the emphasis should be…along with an emphasis on taxing wealth the same way we tax work, and closing corporate loopholes, to pay for those programs. Most of these Democrats support those sorts of programs, which is honorable and, in the context of Republican tax demagoguery, courageous. But it doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to mislead the public about trade or the need for real education reform.

As for the individual performances:

Obama, clearly, is feeling it. He’s still sort of fuzzy in debate, but now he’s fuzzy in a presidential way. His answer on priorities for the first year was a strong, non-fuzzy exception: he’d call in the Joint Chiefs and give them a new mission–ending our involvement in Iraq. He also had the best line the of the debate. When asked why he had so many former Clinton advisors on his foreign policy team, Hillary Clinton–disastrously–interrupted, “I’d like to hear the answer to that one!” And Obama, faster than a speeding bullet, shot back: “Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well.”

Clinton seemed a little desperate, to me at least. She was authoritative, detailed and strong on substance, as always. She cracked a few jokes, tried to seem less scripted. As noted above, that didn’t always work. Also, a technical matter: When she was really clicking on the campaign trail this year, she had slowed down her pace and lowered the timbre of her voice–made it sound warmer. Now she’s back to talking fast and nasal again. I don’t mind it, but others may find it abrasive.

Edwards is really punching the populist message, perhap a bit too hard: he repeated his corporate power, corporate greed riff about three times too many–made him seem a windup doll, not nearly as effective as he is on the stump. Edwards deserves a lot of credit for forcing courage from this field–on health insurance, global warming and other issues–by stepping out first with detailed policy plans, but I get the sense that he’s getting worried about his prospects.

The other three–Dodd, Biden and Richardson–made some good points, as always, but failed to change the shape or trajectory of the debate. I’ll have more to say about the Democratic field in my column this week.