Well, the good news is the Democrats are done debating. Now the caucuses and primaries begin. The last debate, in Iowa today, was the dullest. Where were Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel? How come the Republicans get Alan Keyes? Apparently the rule on inclusion has to do with whether a candidate opens a real office in Iowa. I guess Kucinich and Gravel couldn't come up with rent money in time. Too bad, because they were sorely needed to shake things up.
The closest the candidates got to differentiating themselves was when Hillary Clinton talked about "change," declaring that "Some believe you get change by demanding it. Some believe you get it by hoping for it. I believe you get it by working hard for change."
The hardest working woman in the Presidential field is sending a new message, since Obama started sneaking up on her in the polls. It's not just that she is more experienced, or that all the Democrats' positions are essentially the same, as she has been telling us. Now, it is that she is the real grown-up. "Fiscal discipline" and "acting . . .
responsible" were her watchwords. Those other candidates --the populist Edwards, the charismatic Barack--may look good, but Hillary has her nose to the grindstone and will take care of business for America.
It doesn't exactly make your heart sing.
The first half of the debate sounded like it was sponsored by H&R Block, with the candidates urging us to look up their respective policy papers on the budget, trade, health care, and energy. The exception was Edwards, who over and over again pointed out that all of the issues the candidates discussed come down to an excess of corporate power in Washington and a battle over fundamental economic interests. He is right. But no one else took up the gauntlet. Instead, we got micro policy talk. Obama even pointed out, apropos of health care spending, that we could save $1 trillion if we went back to 1980's obesity levels. Message to Iowans: Go on a diet! I'm not sure that one will help Obama with caucus-goers. Maybe Oprah can help put an empowering, self-help spin on it.
Hillary harkened back to the first Clinton era, telling Iowans that their family incomes increased by $7,000 during the 1990s. Hillary and Obama could run together on the promise to make Americans both rich and thin.
Biden stood out for his critique of military spending, not just in Iraq, but on an array of wasteful weapons systems. That sort of talk prompted Richardson to announce that we need to spend more on recruitment and support for the troops, helping out Hillary, just in case she wants a v.p. who's as hawkish as she is.
On trade, Hillary said, once again, that she would tweak NAFTA. "I want to be a President who focuses on smart, pro-American trade" and "we don't want to be the trade patsies of the world." There it is again, the Hillary message: vote for me and I'll get you the best deal anyone up here can negotiate. She is the real estate lawyer to Edwards's passionate civil litigator. He can talk all he wants about social justice and human rights. Hillary is promising something you can take to the bank.
Obama didn't make much effort to differentiate himself from Hillary on that score. No sparks there.
Then, of course, there was the insufferable pandering.
Biden said the election was not about "experience" or "change" but "action." Great. Another dumb slogan--just in the nick of time. Then he actually quoted a hymn "May he raise you up on eagles' wings, bear you on the breath of dawn." You could see his colleagues on the stage suppressing a collective groan.
Richardson, not to be outdone, followed that piece of poetry with a great big wet kiss to all the Iowans "for putting us through this good process." At that the rest of the candidates did crack up.
They should have laughed when Richardson called for his patented "Energy revolution"--or at least pressed him on how it relates to his membership on oil company boards.
Dodd was the best on energy, calling for a corporate carbon tax. Hillary was not so courageous, echoing Dodd's urgent tone, but doing just what he accused his colleagues of doing--jawboning and then backing away from tax and sacrifice. She is for cap-and-trade.
Edwards pointed out, as is his role, that the true obstacles to sane, renewable energy policy are "oil companies, power companies, all those entrenched interests."
On education, Edwards was by far the best, calling for universal pre-K, child care support, and a great teaching university. Richardson said we should have full-day kindergarten (most places already do). Obama wants parents to turn off the TV and pull their kids away from video games. He also supports the basic, decent provisions the other candidates endorsed. Hillary said she is proud to have a family that is focused on education, and mentioned her daughter, Chelsea, who went to the extremely expensive private school in Washington, Sidwell Friends. She said we should have "21st Century classrooms," which sounds like a bunch of hooey compared with Edwards's call for paying teachers decent wages, and ending inequality among suburban and inner city schools.
Edwards accidentally got to talk about education twice, which gave him the chance to pitch his college tuition assistance plan, too.
On the wrap up "what will you do in your first year in office" question, Obama, who went first, sounded best. He'd "call in the Joint Chiefs and tell them they have a new mission, to end the war." Then he'd call in his Attorney General and review all of Bush's executive orders and nix the ones that subvert Constitutional rights. And he'd convene his universal health care commission. Biden seconded that order of priorities, saying he'd implement the "Biden plan" to get out of Iraq, abandon the Bush policy on torture, extend health insurance to every child, and push through his preschool education proposal. Richardson said he'd get all the troops out of Iraq within one year, push for health care, and his "energy revolution," and bring back habeas corpus and restore our civil liberties. Dodd teased Richardson and Biden about their loquaciousness "It's gonna be a long year," and then gave essentially the same laundry list. Ditto Edwards and Hillary.
Hillary got the Giuliani question of yesterday: given her penchant for secrecy and stonewalling, why shouldn't voters be worried about the same qualities in her Administration? Like Giuliani she expressed her enduring admiration for "open, transparent government" but said she'd learned a lot from her experience withholding documents: "We didn't have a good communication strategy." Stonewalling is bad PR. Now she gets it. Rudy, on the other hand, insists he never did anything wrong. Neither inspires confidence.
Other highlights were Joe Biden's "I am not a racist" speech in answer to a question on his comments about Indian convenience store owners, and, of course his memorable announcement speech in which he praised Obama for being the first "clean" and "articulate" black Presidential candidate. Obama defended him, saying he could "give testimony" that he's not a racist--just a boob.
Obama had his own gotcha question. The moderator asked how he squares his promise to bring change with his use of so many former Clinton advisors. Hillary had a good laugh at that one. But he shot back that he looked forward to getting her advice when he's President, too.
In the end, minus Kucinich and Gravel, it was Edwards who made the most compelling case for real, progressive policy change. But if the polls are accurate, we're looking at Clinton II--whether as negotiator-in-chief or chief policy adviser.