Musings on the Democratic Debate

Ah, the Democrats. So much promise, and yet they remain Democrats, at heart—and therefore perfectly capable of blowing the historic opportunity before them. I mean, here they are, with Bush in the basement at 28 percent or thereabouts. Even his most loyal lieutenants are leaving him. The Iraq war could hardly be more unpopular, and yet, miraculously, the leading GOP candidates for 2008 seem loath to distance themselves from the president's position—chaining themselves to what sure seems like a sinking ship. The Democrats' fund-raising is up. Congress is in their control. Corporate America is coming around on global warming. The Dems look to have as wide open a shot at winning the hearts and minds of the American people as they've had in a very long time.

So who thought it would be a good idea to schedule a debate on a night when all anyone wants to do is watch the penultimate episode of the Sopranos?

————————————————————————————

Yes, this presidential election will be among the most important of our lifetimes. And yes, a lot of Democrats are so eager for the beginning of the post-Bush era that they're buying countdown clocks. But that doesn't mean that eight-candidate cattle shows at this stage of the game are good for the country, or good for the party. Nearly 6OO days before the election, we're in spring training. Most of these folks, of course, won't make the cut. There's a reason we don't start watching the teams until the teams have had a chance to get their lineups set. This show just isn't ready for prime time yet.

————————————————————————————

Ok, enough grumping. The party seems to be holding this series of regional beauty pageants. So I guess we have to cover them.

The most important question of the night: does the internecine foodfight over Iraq help the Dems' chances? Barack Obama tags John Edwards—"you're about four and a half years late" on leadership on the opposition to the war, after Edwards tucks into Obama and Hillary Clinton for their votes. Hillary tries to shift the attention back to Bush, and appear above the intraparty warfare over the war. will the classic frontrunner strategy work? Don't the questions about the evolution of her views on Iraq—outlined in a new book by Don Van Atta and Jeff Gerth—demand a stronger response? Not sure Edwards scored as well as he'd hoped (and his protest of the term 'war on terror' threatens to distract from the effectiveness of his attack). But this won't be the last Hillary will hear on this front, and she'd be wise to craft a more potent response.

————————————————————————————

MSM footnote: The leading Dems may boycott Fox News debates. But why? Aren't the party's chances in the fall of 2008 dependent in large part on its ability to woo at least a decent percentage of the Fox audience? That's how Bill Clinton got elected. Plus, Fox seems to be the only network so far that has executed its debate without distracting technical weirdness. CNN: It helps if the candidates can hear the questions.

————————————————————————————

All the discussion about who read and didn't read the National Intelligence Estimates makes me think maybe Robert Byrd ought to run for president. At least he did his homework, and stood up when it counted—voicing real doubts in real time about the quality of the intel, and tearing Congress a new one for not conducting a serious debate when it mattered most.

————————————————————————————

The health-care primary continues to be a fascinating subplot. Edwards got out early;as my colleague Richard Wolffe has reported, Obama's people were worried about Edwards' salvo, making it harder for Obama to catch up. Hillary professes joy that everyone is now talking about the subject, but wears an expression of ownership we haven't seen since Al Gore overdid his claim to have invented the Internet. Maybe Hillary learned from Big Al's mistake, and will find a way to sell her genuine expertise on the subject in a politically palatable fashion.

————————————————————————————

The irony of "don't ask don't tell"—how did it go from being quicksand for Bill Clinton, to a crowd-pleasing slam dunk for Hillary? She started out wobbly, but then pulled it together nicely. "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." Quoting Goldwater in service of the argument that we don't have the luxury of fussing about gays in a military desperate for every warm body we can muster was a political masterstroke. Reminding folks that Joe Biden has been in Congress most of his adult life—pointing out his permanent residence in the graveyard of post-Cold War presidential ambition—was a bonus. The coverage of the first half of this debate will focus on how Edwards stepped up and tried, reasonably effectively, to trash talk the frontrunners. But for a moment there, Hillary was unconscious, like LeBron James.

————————————————————————————

Memo to Obama: minting post-baby boom politics does not excuse you from needing to learn how to throw a punch.

Memo to Bill Richardson: Talking about the need for an Apollo program on energy kind of leaves you out of the post-baby boom sweepstakes.

Memo to CNN: We aren't as excited about your moving of podiums as you are.

————————————————————————————

Bush may be in the basement. But he still has the opposition on the defensive, even in his weakened state. The whole country respects the men and women fighting and dying in Iraq. So why is that the Dems sound so craven—and cowed by the old Bush-Rove magic—whenever they acknowledge as much?

————————————————————————————

The pressing question for Biden's advisers is whether his presidential run is hurting, or helping, his chances of one day becoming secretary of state. Definitely giving Gravel a run for the Howard Beale vote tonight.

————————————————————————————

Another lay-up for Hillary, on the Iran question. Sending Dick Cheney, not exactly her idea of diplomacy. It's a wonder that he isn't a target more often. After all, Cheney's approval ratings make Bush look like Maroon 5.

————————————————————————————

Historians, help us out: How often, in the annals of presidential debate, have candidates been asked directly whether they'd order the assassination of an enemy of the state? How many raised their hands, and how quickly? And whatever did the public think of it?

————————————————————————————

First 100 days: President John Edwards would tour the world, reasserting America's moral authority. Sounds good. But in so declaring, he acknowledged in passing that the candidates had spent scant time addressing poverty—a central theme of the early stages of Edwards' campaign. When his advisers exit spin alley, after talking up his efforts to get all up in the frontrunners' grills, how much will they regret that their man didn't spend more time talking about the poor?

————————————————————————————

As always, democracy is humbling. The dedication and determination of the citizens who came to the mike tonight is an inspiration—and one can only hope that this is a scenario that plays out one day soon in Iraq. But I'm old-fashioned—I like my moments of New Hampshire's influence in presidential politics to come when there's snow on the ground. It is sobering to think that this CNN debate just might be the Granite State's major moment in the sun, given the rush to front-load the primary calendar for 2008. Me, I've had my fill for a June night in 2007. Can I watch the Sopranos now?

Join the Discussion