Reflections on the First Democratic Debate

Don’t know about you, but I didn’t realize that President George W. Bush was on the ballot for the presidency in 2008. My first impression from the debate last night was the shrill, strident tone many of the candidates on the stage took towards the president in general and the war in Iraq in particular. And if I hear “If I had known then what I know now, I would never have voted for the war” one more time, I’m going to go crazy.

First, hindsight is always 20-20. The pandering and apparent soul-searching to appease the far left by former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was particularly irritating. I was struck by the lack of a coherent message of what any of the candidates would actually do if they were elected president. While all claimed to oppose the war and support “comprehensive border control,” I didn’t hear anything by way of a new plan or idea to move the country forward. Leadership in a time of war requires strength, resolve and convictions; all the Democrats on the stage sounded like they were more interested in appeasing far-left groups like MoveOn.org rather than confronting the real dangers presented by the war on terrorism that the United States is facing.

Moreover, I was struck at how the party of John Kennedy has apparently turned into the party of Howard Dean.  There was not a moderate voice on the stage and the candidates views on health care and taxes were a clear reminder that the Republican criticism of Democrats as the party of tax and spend is alive and well.  With that observation out of the way, let me see if I can handicap the field a bit from my impressions:

Sen. Clinton: The junior senator from New York didn’t hit a home run, but she didn’t falter, either. Besides appearing a bit condescending at times, her composure was good and she looked comfortable on the stage. Her best answers revolved around how she would have handled an al Qaeda attack on the United States. If I’m not mistaken, I think she was the only candidate who said she would retaliate. For a party labeled as being soft on terrorism, Clinton struck the right tone with her answer here. From the perspective of a partisan Republican, I thought she displayed warmth and humor at times — a surprisingly human side to a very packaged and calculating politician.

Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.): After a rocky start in which he looked a bit nervous and uncomfortable, Obama came into his own by about the last 30 minutes of the debate. Once he settled in, Obama had good stage presence and bearing and (yes, Sen. Biden) was rather articulate at times. Obama handled a second-tier candidate, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), well when the congressman tried to engage Obama in a mini-debate on the stage. All in all Obama had the most to lose last night, and while he didn’t hit a home run, he was able to string together several measured responses that came across well. I expect he’ll be much stronger and formidable in the next debate — particularly after his team focuses him on how to answer questions more crisply.

Former Sen. Edwards: For being the most polished and articulate debater of all present on the stage, I thought Edwards was surprisingly nervous and unimpressive given his strong oratorical skills. While he didn’t damage himself with his performance, he didn’t generate any momentum, either. I found his answer about his vast wealth to be particularly weak — something about how he and his family were in a restaurant and his father told the children they had to leave because he couldn’t afford to pay for anything on the menu. For a man building an enormous estate in North Carolina, he needs to refine his “man of the people” shtick for the next debate.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: Was it me, or did the governor look like he was either squinting in the lights or otherwise extremely uncomfortable for much of the debate? One he got started, he demonstrated his clear grasp of foreign affairs/policy. I predicted that Richardson would perform strongly and his partisans have to be happy with his performance.

Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.): Both did well, although I don’t know if the two really moved the needle to generate additional interest or momentum. Biden’s one word response of “Yes” when asked by moderator Brian Williams if he could control his gaffe-prone nature and tendency to be long-winded if elected president was the best response of the night.

Rep. Kucinich: Without question, Kucinich’s sincerity in his beliefs was very apparent. Kucinich is the only Democrat running for president who opposed the war in Iraq from the outset and has the voting record to prove it. While he won’t move far along in the field, there was a certain refreshing aspect to his candor and steadfast beliefs.

Former Sen. Mike Gravel (Alaska): One word: scary. I felt at any moment he might personally attack one of his fellow candidates on the stage. He was the only candidate who consistently lashed out against his colleagues — even calling Biden arrogant at one point. Does anyone who declares he’s running for president for the Democrats get a podium on the stage? Perhaps a little quality control is order for the next debate.