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Sunday, May 04, 2003

Democrats on Display

I guess I'm all alone in my impression of the debate last night.

I thought Stephanopoulos was a complete asshole in his vain attempts at out-Gotcha-ing Tim Russert and particularly by baiting the candidates (which they should have ignored) into slamming each other for the entertainment of the Kewl Kidz. This guy used to actually believe in something but now he is so invested in Washington whoredom that he didn't even care that since this debate would have no effect on his ratings he could have dropped the bored cynicism and just acted like a human being --- or even a Democrat and patriot.

However, I was not disgusted or repelled by the candidates, which seems to be the prevailing critique. I was actually kind of confused by the fact that I was hearing Democrats speak about issues for 90 minutes without having to listen to canned 20 minute rebuttals from each of the same neocon think tank robots, or watch them be repeatedly interrupted by some puffy lipped, botoxed Alpha Girl who prefaces every sentence with "Considering this President's enormous ...uh... popularity, what makes you think you can ....."

It's very early and almost nothing really counts right now; it's like the first game of spring training. We don't know yet how events are going to affect us or the other team. We've barely glimpsed the possibilities. But, I came away with some preliminary thoughts about how the primary campaign might shape our agenda.

I think the candidates well represent the spectrum of the party from liberal Kucinich to conservative Lieberman. Some of them are surprising. Sharpton, for instance, was glib and rhetorically effective. He has a way of making verbal connections and using humor that the other guys should study. Lieberman made a straight out case for electibility in the general, which I thought was odd coming from a politician who prides himself on his rectitude and integrity. It made it look as if he may have opportunistically taken his positions for (gasp) political reasons. A very strategic argument, coming from somebody like him. Odd.

Gephardt made a huge gamble on a big plan and threw health care right on the table as a big campaign issue. He made what sounded to me like a good practical argument by pointing out that his plan would not be opposed by the "Harry and Louise" special interests so it might actually...pass. He is a pro, maybe too much so, but good at explaining a complicated issue in plain terms.

The biggest surprise to me was Edwards who has fashioned for himself a fresh Democratic image with a traditional Democratic message. Using his trial lawyer credentials, he is positioning himself as an anti-corporate populist with what seems to be developing as a fairly strong critique of Bush's foreign policy of unilateralism and failure of follow through. He's betting on the Enron analogy. I happen to think that is one of the strongest messages we have and if Bush can tie his little Top Gun stunts in with the economy as they say they are, then a smart opposition candidate can tie Bush's closeness to corporate pyramid schemes in with his failure to plan for a secure future in America and overseas. I'm going to look closer at Edwards (whom I had liked as a candidate until 9/11.) His Q rating is very high and in a world where a drunken fratboy deserter can be dressed up in costume and sold as a war hero, it's clear that anything is possible with the right packaging.

I have followed the Kerry and Dean campaigns and they were both what I expected, although Kerry had a problem with his voice so he seemed a little bit weaker than usual. Dean has a Trumanesque pugnacious spirit and that has got to be very attractive to Democrats, who are starved for somebody to show some damned spine. Kerry, on the other hand, oozes Kennedyesque manly gravitas. Both men are very smart and could run rings around Junior in a debate (although I'd be extremely surprised if Rove allows that this time.) I like both of these guys.

Graham remains a cipher to me as a political personality and I simply don't understand his foreign policy argument. Hezbollah is a dangerous group of terrorists (or "freedom fighters," depending on where you sit on the issue.) But, they do not threaten the US any more than the IRA or the Basques threaten the US. And even if they did, I fail to see why we should give George W. Patton any more blank checks to wage war. If he wants to invade Syria, Spain or Ireland, let him please come back to congress and seek permission. That's the way the system's designed to work. Grahams argument doesn't make sense and fairly reeks of absurd political positioning. The Democrats have to do better than that on foreign policy.

Kucinich and Mosely-Braun both represent the most liberal wing and are indispensible (well, Kucinich is -- Mosely-Braun wasn't very effective) in that they force the conservative and moderate Dems to make a winning case against what used to be considered fairly mainstream liberal goals. I would imagine that most of us, in our heart of hearts, recognize that health care is not a consumer item that people buy the way they buy a car (realizing they can't afford that heart bypass, for instance, so they'll settle for...dying.) If we want to have universal health care it's absurd to pretend that it is a "market" ruled by rational self-interest. There is no relationship between rational self-interest and money when illness and death are at stake. Clearly, at the very least, we need to take for-profit insurance companies out of the business and probably need to go single payer to make it work. Kucinich is the only guy who could cop to that and it needs to stay on the table.

So, all in all, I found the debate quite instructive and rather than feeling disillusioned, I'm actually a little bit more enthusiastic. I would surely like to see Clark and Hart jump in with a couple of dynamite foreign policy arguments because I see difficult times ahead beating back "Mav" Bush and "Goose" Cheney on national security. But there is time for the candidates to develop these arguments.

I do not believe that George W. Bush is unbeatable. Yes, they are tarting him up like a war hero, but in reality he remains a stupid, shallow, reckless loose cannon whose adolescent ego may be in danger of interfering with Karl's ability hold together the disparate and competing factions of his administration and his party.

For all of the staged hero worship and phony hagiography of this man, he is actually their single greatest weakness. We can beat him again.