I'd say that, no matter what the newspaper and TV reporters tell you, there are three stories to walk away from last night's Democratic primary debate with: Brian Williams did an absolutely amazing job of running the thing, Mike Gravel is the new Al Sharpton, and stick a fork in Bill Richardson, he's done.
Kudos for Brian Williams: The question everybody had been wondering was how in the heck do you divide up 90 minutes between 8 candidates and get any meaningful answers out of any of them? The answer seems to be, you let Brian Williams run things, because he's gotten really, really good at this. First of all, he started out by flat-out banning an awful lot of time wasters: no thanking anybody (as he put it, more or less, he and the organizers and the hosts have all agreed in advance to consider themselves thanked), no opening or closing statements, 60 second limit on all answers and each candidate got only a very limited number of 30 second "rebuttal" chips to cash in at will. And two of the questions were resolved via simple show of hands. I was just absolutely floored by his skill at keeping the pace up, keeping things lively, and getting good short answers (instead of speeches) out of the candidates. Those of you who skipped this one missed some really good television.
I will also say that if anybody still thinks that the Democrats were boycotting Faux News's debates because they were afraid of tough questions, wow, they should have heard Brian Williams last night. The whole middle third of the program was dedicated to a section he called "perception issues," which was a code word for, "you get 60 seconds each to answer the nastiest question I have." And wow did he do a good job of making every single one of them squirm. Obama ducked his, if somewhat gracefully. Edwards recited boilerplate while looking uncomfortable. He and Clinton then got a shared question that neither of them wanted to hear; I'm sure their answers would have gone over much better at a Republican fund raiser, and they knew it, but those were the answers they were stuck with. (I actually think that Williams went easy on Clinton; I could have easily thrown a much harder question at her. But then, mine may be one she has a prepared answer on.) Richardson flubbed his so badly that his career is basically over, not just his run but his whole career, more on that in a second. Dodd basically shrugged and gave the best answer he could, admitting it wasn't good enough. Kucinich actually had a good answer for his. Biden, admittedly, got the softball question, the straight line to set up the laugh line of the night, but the whole joke left the audience with an uncomfortable reminder of what Biden has to be embarrassed by. And Gravel had his second, and biggest, of his three total emotional meltdowns of the night.
Mike Gravel is the new Al Sharpton: The embarrassing question for Mike Gravel was that Williams managed to dig up a quote from right after Gravel declared his candidacy in which Gravel admitted he didn't care if he won or not. So Williams' question was, "Then doesn't that mean that you're wasting our time?" And boy, do I wish that a lot of never-gonna-happen candidates had been asked that in previous debates; heck, if somebody had asked Al Sharpton that question before he got in his Republican-paid-for hatchet job on Howard Dean, George Bush would probably have never been President. But that aside, what Gravel said was that when he got in, it was just as a way of doing what, well, he didn't put it this way, but what an awful lot of fringe candidates and the whole Libertarian and Green Parties in this country have always done with their Presidential runs. That is to say, he was taking advantage of the system to abuse it for a subsidized soapbox for his current cause of the moment, namely, attacking everybody else including even Dennis Kucinich for being cowardly about the Iraq War. (Gravel, whose prior claim to fame was as the man whose single-handed filibuster personally ended the Vietnam War draft, won't settle for defunding the war, and even explicitly revoking Bush's war powers authorization isn't enough. He wants the Democrats to revoke the War Powers authorization and add language to the War Powers Act making it a felony for Bush to keep troops in Iraq after authorization has been revoked.)
But, says Gravel, he's not just making speeches now, now he's serious, because he believes that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Joe Biden, the four front-runners, are so dangerously wrong on the subject of Iran that they're going to get us all killed. And, having said that (at the top of his shrilly screaming lungs, practically), he turned his attention particularly to Barack Obama. His complaint, that all four of those candidates agree with George Bush that the US ought to continue to threaten to nuke Iran if that's what it takes to keep them from getting The Bomb, applies equally to all of them. But in particular he singled out Obama and went after him like a rabid animal. His personal mission now seems to be to do everything in his power to torpedo the Obama campaign, and to take down Clinton and Edwards and Biden if he has any momentum left after that. Which, given the much commented-upon preference the Republicans have for running against Clinton and their nervousness about running against Obama, makes me very curious as to who's funding his campaign and who's providing his volunteers? Because this particular kind of attack looks eerily familiar to me.
And, of course, the other thing that he has in common with Al Sharpton is that seven thousand Macedonians in full battle array will march out of my backside before either one of them takes the oath of office as President of the US. Gravel's 77 years old. He's been out of politics for almost 30 years, and even when he was in politics, he was nothing but a 2-term Senator. More to the point, the American people are never in my lifetime going to hand the keys to the Oval Office to a guy who can't control his temper. But he has another thing in common with previous fringe candidates, one that the commentariat all picked up on: just by being on that stage, he makes candidates that the professional commentariat and the political elite would like to paint unfairly as "radical fringe" look a lot more moderate.
In fact, Gravel didn't actually say anything last night that was so radical that I would disagree with it. His actual statements, his actual policy analysis, was all stuff that I 100% agree with. (Correction: I forgot his attack on nuclear power. But even that, while I disagree with him, wasn't terribly radical.) I would probably love to have Mike Gravel as President. But other than being the vicious attack dog attached to the seat of Barack Obama's pants, the main thing that he's achieving so far is to make Dennis Kucinich look suddenly amazingly more electable, and to make Joe Biden look remarkably cool, calm, and in control.
Alas, Bill Richardson is done: Williams dug up a quote from Richardson in which he said that the reason he was the last of the Democratic candidates to call for Alberto Gonzalez' resignation is that he wanted to give him every possible chance to defend himself, specifically because he was a fellow Hispanic. Williams put Richardson on the spot about that, in essence accusing him of having two standards, one very generous one for his fellow Hispanics and one draconian one for everybody else, white or black.
I can only assume that one of three things is true: either Richardson and his debate-prep team never saw this one coming, or Richardson refused to listen to them, or they did a terrible job of crafting an answer. Because Richardson came out swinging, more or less, saying that it was perfectly natural for him to want a fellow Hispanic to succeed, and at least he's candid about it, and that the rest of us shouldn't judge him for that because at least he did eventually give in and call for Gonzalez' resignation. I could have written a better answer than that in my sleep. I could have improvised a better answer than that off the cuff. As it is, basically, the answer that Richardson gave is one that he'll have to explain at every campaign stop from now until he throws in the towel: did he really mean that he thinks Hispanics should get an extra free pass on bad behavior? Does he really think that it was acceptable of him to give a fellow Hispanic a break he wouldn't give a non-Hispanic? Does he really think that everybody does things like this? Would he give fellow Hispanics a free pass on bad behavior, or at least an extra chance to explain it away, in a Richardson administration?
Because frankly, that crap doesn't fly in America. He's toast. His answer was so bad, was so bad, that not only is his Presidential campaign effectively over before it even seriously began, his diplomatic career is probably over, too. Because who's going to send someone out to negotiate or even to fact-find for the US who's going to be asked about this by every reporter in the world at every public appearance? Heck, that was such a monumentally stupid answer that I wouldn't bet serious money on him getting to keep his governor's seat. Does New Mexico have a voter-initiative recall mechanism in their state constitution?
It's a shame. With him down, I'm leaning towards Biden, right this minute, myself. Sort of. Maybe. (Edit, a couple of hours later: It took half an hour of poking around the web, including Biden's own website, to remember why I thought this was a bad idea in the first place. Now I don't know who I support. Heck, maybe I will back Mike Gravel.)
What about the other six? Other than Gravel, and to a lesser extent Kucinich, everybody played it somewhat safe, taking the high road. I think they all pretty much understood that none of them had anything to gain by going after any of the others. The front runners had nothing to prove, and the most important thing for the back-benchers to prove was that they were just as good as the front runners, that they had as much to say for themselves as the front-runners do. (Although at one point early on Edwards basically got away with implying that Clinton is a candidate that you shouldn't trust, but it was so subtle I'm not sure even she got it.) Kucinich did go far enough out on a limb to slam two others on the dias, but only in passing: he briefly went out of his way to mock Clinton for her claim that she couldn't possibly have known that Bush wasn't bluffing about invading Iraq, and he joined in with Gravel at the end in piling on Obama over Obama's insistence that the US had a right to nuke Iran.
Nobody is going to change their mind about Clinton because of her performance last night. I thought that her answers were evasive and divorced from reality, but her many fans in the party are already all over the air about what a great job she did. Obama didn't change any minds either way as far as I can tell, either, pretty much sticking to playing it safe. Neither Edwards nor Dodd really said anything particularly memorable; I had to go back over my notes to remember even what questions they were was asked. Biden did remarkably well, I thought, speaking remarkably well. And while Biden is stuck with the same stupid answer that Clinton is about having voted for the Iraq War, saying he trusted Bush when Bush said he was only bluffing Saddam to get the weapon inspectors in, unlike Clinton, Biden is willing now to admit that was pretty bone-headed of him, so he gets points for having learned from that mistake, which is more than she can say. And if Kucinich hadn't had Gravel to cover for him, I would have said that he came across as combative and a little mean-spirited. As it was I think he probably did a better than expected job of looking potentially Presidential, and his willingness to take the others on did a very convincing job of staking out the solid center of the anti-war faction in the party.
I'll predict that, even as clips from the debate begin circulating, the net effect will have been that Clinton, Obama, Edwards, and Dodd did themselves neither much good nor any harm; that Biden and Kucinich and even Gravel did themselves some good (not much good in Gravel's case, but at least some good); and that Richardson did himself substantial and irreparable harm.