Dems Debate: What Went Down

In a CNN-sponsored Democrat presidential debate last night, eight contenders cordially made their best claims for quickest troop withdrawal from Iraq. From former Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who rejects all war funding and stands on peaceful idealogy to Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, the only Democratic candidate to have voted for the supplemental war-funding bill, each speaker consistently connected interviewer questions with that central issue.

Former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was most notably criticized for her decision to support the war in Iraq in 2003. Invoking the “if I knew then what I know now” argument, Clinton’s defense was worn in comparison to top opponent Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s solid rejection of the war from the start. Aside from this historical blunder, Clinton demonstrated a noticeable and comfortable confidence.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer posed a series of “hands up-hands down” questions in which clever dodging might have been eliminated but Clinton and others failed to play along. Citing the pointlessness of speaking in “abstract terms,” Clinton argued the disservice playing to hypothetical situations does to the American people.

But such situations continued surface. The most foolish question came when one interviewer asked how former President Bill Clinton would take a role in future administrations. Consistent references to the Clinton Administration from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson intensified the hovering shadow of the Democrats’ last White House occupancy.

The main issues were less hugely divisive and more irritatingly nitpicky. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards spit out rehearsed talking points on leadership versus legislation and confessed he was wrong to initially support the war. Playing the truth card, Edwards declared, “Given the dishonesty we’ve been faced with for the last several years…we have to establish trust between the American people and the president.”

He later emphasized equality and diversity as two of America’s greatest values, saying those must be implemented in effort to “re-establish America’s moral authority in the world” by “taking action that demonstrates commitment to humanity.”

That kind of temperate sentiment tinted the preface of many answers, which often began with compliments on an opponent’s idea. In his attempt to disagree with opponents on a war funding issue, Biden refused to criticize his challengers because, “I don’t want to judge them,” since “these are my friends.”

While some were friendly, others, like Kucinich and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel seemed outsiders and were even situated on the ends of each row.  Kucinich spoke consistently of unrealistic approaches to peace and Gravel looked ready to pounce on the many answers he disagreed with, going so far as to affirm that no one who initially voted to support the war should become president. Both of these candidates also argued that Iraq was “the Democrat’s war,” just like it was George W. Bush’s war.

Regular jabs at President Bush and references to “lies” about the war steadily dotted arguments and in two hours, the hottest issue of the day — immigration — was given little play. Richardson stumbled in trying to explain away amnesty but the group consensus on the issue was expected. Only Gravel agreed that English should become the official language in America, while others banked on arguments (from Clinton) on the “legal consequences” of doing so and from Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), that “too few of people in this country that can’t understand a second language” and instead of talking about an official language, we should, “encourage more diversity in that.”

Universal healthcare grabbed a slice of time, though candidates mostly quibbled over the slight details characterizing each of their plans. Clinton seemed relieved to revert back to her once-distinguishing issue, announcing she was “thrilled that universal healthcare is back on the national agenda.”

Sen. Obama often substituted concrete answers for wordy, disconnected responses. In the second half of the debate, set “town hall” style, a military wife asked a question about Iraq. His non-answer was a question: “when they come home, are we treating them with the dignity and honor they deserve?” He finger-pointed at Bush again, saying the current administration “doesn’t do that because they do it on the cheap.” He got the “blame-Bush pass and go” on that one and remained obviously lacking in substantial answers throughout.

From an audience member, the question of top priority for the first 100 days in office was posed. Clinton, Obama and Biden immediately sided with ending the war and bringing the troops home. Clinton and Obama are the realistically possible nominees at this point and their similarity on issues was noteworthy. The debates are healthy and informative but some wonder if they are just pre-games for significantly obvious frontrunner Clinton. It was clear from these debates that no Democrat candidate possesses a real plan for post-troop withdrawal. However, Bush-hating syndrome and jaded “support for the troops by bringing them home” mentality makes for a pretty good temporary replacement.


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