Early on Sunday morning the Democratic contenders for President gathered for yet another debate in Iowa. There is a predictable pattern to these now. Hillary Clinton is polished and in command, Barak Obama is glib but seems years away from being prepared to be President and Joe Biden is a lonely oasis of responsible analysis on Iraq. Rather than declare winners and losers we offer from the debate: “The Top Ten Things That Should Worry Conservatives.”
1. Clinton: “ We know how to win.” The “we” is the first thing that should wake up conservatives. Bill will be back in full force in the campaign and in the White House. More importantly, the statement is accurate — the Clintons do know how to win. They talk faith, they appeal to ordinary Americans, they eschew talk of socialized medicine and they fight back — very hard. Conservatives may fall into a false sense of comfort by looking at her “unfavorable” poll ratings but she will be very, very hard to beat.
2. Edwards: “ We have had a failed trade policy.” Free trade is out, labor and environmental standards are in. The consensus on free trade which helped generate American prosperity for a generation seems at risk. To his credit Barack Obama sounds a lonely reminder that “Globalization is here.”
3. The Democrats main debate about Iraq is whether we can leave by the end of the year. Richardson says by the end of the year. Hillary is talking a year. Edwards says maybe ten months. Only Joe Biden sounded the alarm that a hasty retreat is not only logistically impractical but potentially disastrous if you care about ethnic genocide or regional war.
4. The Democrats talk convincingly about prayer and personal faith. Hillary and Edwards say they pray each day and evidence not a shred of contempt for religion. Bill Richardson says his sense of social justice comes from Catholicism. The Democrats will compete for votes who regularly attend religious service, a group they have struggled with in past elections.
5. Bill Richardson has a “one point plan” for No Child Left Behind — “scrap it.” The more viable candidates are less blunt but their criticisms of a Washington bureaucratic program and the over-emphasis on test taking will ring true with many parents and sound quite rational. Republicans who support or who voted for “No Child Left Behind” will have to explain why the federalization of education was a good thing.
6. George Stephanopoulos tried to incite intraparty warfare but largely failed. Hillary was given the chance to called Obama inexperienced but declined. Obama was given a chance to label Hillary as part of the problem of Washington insiders and chose to talk about his own vision of change. While Republicans spent the week attacking each other on immigration, the Democrats all agreed their differences were small compared to those with the Democrats. (Who could disagree with that?)
7. The Democrats are not being asked and aren’t talking about taxes. A brief mention of the estate tax (they sure don’t call it the “death tax”) was heard but in all their talk of helping the middle class and attacks on President Bush they are being quite mum on their plans to roll back the Bush tax cuts. With the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2010, Republicans will have to be the ones to explain to Americans what their family budgets will look like under a Democratic administration.
8. Only Barack Obama is willing to rattle Democratic special interest groups like the teachers unions. Hillary won’t even back merit pay. She certainly doesn’t like the idea of class action reform. None of the other Democrats will support merit pay, let alone school choice. The silver lining: on this issue candidates like Giuliani and Romney who have records and plans for shaking up public education will be the candidates of “change.”
9. Iran may breathe easier in a Democratic administration. Edwards wants only to leave our fate to negotiations with the Europeans. The others want to rule out military options. If you believe that a nuclearized Iran can only be prevented if a military threat is viable and believable to the mullahs this is not the crowd for you.
10. Having Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel as well as Edwards around makes Hillary and Obama seems moderate and responsible. If Kucinich want to cut the Pentagon budget by 15% Hillary seems like a hawk. If Edwards refuses to even negotiate with drug and insurance companies over the contours of health care reform then Hillary and Obama seems to be the advocates of “bringing everyone together.” Hillary and Obama have learned to laugh when the more harebrained ideas are offered up — as if to give a wink to the audience and say “Don’t worry. I’m not that extreme.”