Thursday :: Sep 4, 2003

First Summaries From New Mexico Debate Tonight

by Steve

According to the early dispatches out of New Mexico tonight, the Democrats spent more time hammering Mr. Bush, some pretty harshly (thank God!), than they did ganging up on Howard Dean. In fact, except for Lieberman, most of the candidates stayed away from Dean, and Kerry only addressed him twice. With the Dems smelling blood in the water over Iraq and Bush’s overall handling of foreign affairs, they pounced.

The candidates, in the first official debate of the Democratic presidential contenders, united in denouncing what they said was Mr. Bush's failure to orchestrate international support for invading Iraq. And they repeatedly criticized his handling of the economy, upbraiding him in particular for what several described as a near-catastrophic loss of manufacturing jobs.

Still, the debate made it clear that the candidates have also begun to compete more intensely with one another. That was reflected by the attacks offered by some candidates, like Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who went after Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont.

But while many of his rivals consider Dr. Dean an increasingly formidable figure in the field, he was the subject of far less criticism than many Democrats — including he himself — had expected going into tonight's event.

Instead, Mr. Bush served as the real target of the evening. If anything, the debate underlined the extent to which Democrats view Dr. Dean as a difficult candidate to attack, because of the unconventional nature of his candidacy and of his supporters, many of whom have been drawn into politics for the first time.

The focus on the war tonight was the latest indication — if the Democrats need it — of how the conflict in Iraq has molded the contest. Disapproval of Mr. Bush's Iraq policy was voiced even by Democrats who supported the war last year, in a clear reflection of the political difficulties many of them have encountered in the early going of the Democratic presidential campaign.

"This president is a miserable failure on foreign policy," said Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.

"We can not cut and run," he said. "We've got to see that this situation is left in a better place. We have to form an international coalition to get it done. This president is a miserable failure. I some days just can't believe — it's incomprehensible to me — it's incomprehensible that we would wind up in this situation without a plan and without international cooperation to get this done."

Bravo Dick. Welcome back to the real world. Good harsh words. In fact, Gephardt’s quote about Bush being a “miserable failure” was the lead in several accounts of the debate. Good sharp words get media attention. Are you paying attention John Kerry?

The candidates quarreled over whether the proper response now was to enhance troop strength to try to end the daily toll of American casualties there.

Senator Lieberman, one of the strongest supporters of the war, joined his fellow Democrats in criticizing Mr. Bush's handling of the postwar effort, but said he would support increasing the number of forces in Iraq.

"I would send more troops," Mr. Lieberman said. "The troops that are there need more protection."

Other Democrats argued that this would be a mistake.

"If we need more troops, they are going to be foreign troops — not our troops," said Dr. Dean, whose opposition to the war has helped lift what was once an unlikely candidacy into the front ranks. "Our troops need to come home."

Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose sometimes ambiguous statements on the war have drawn attack from other Democrats, invoked Mr. Lieberman in opposing the notion of increasing troop strength.

"I disagree with Joe Lieberman on this," he said "We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation. We need to minimize that."

The debate also reflected the rising profile of Dr. Dean.

Senator Lieberman criticized Dr. Dean's proposal to eliminate President Bush's taxes cuts in order to finance his health care plan, and Dr. Dean's proposal that the United States should enter trade agreements only with countries that share its labor, environmental and human rights standards.

"The Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression," Mr. Lieberman said, noting that one in five American jobs are connected to international trade.

Dr. Dean responded that he thought Mexico and other Latin American countries would be willing to abide by international labor and environmental standards, citing the European Union as an effective coalition of countries with such agreements. "I believe that Mexico wants open trade relationships with the United States," he said. "We cannot continue to ship our jobs to countries where they get paid 50 cents an hour."

From the Post’s account tonight:

"This president is a miserable failure," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) said. "It's incomprehensible to me that we would wind up in this situation without a plan and without international cooperation to get it done."

Former Vermont governor Howard Dean accused the president of misleading the country before the war and of unnecessarily alienating U.S. allies at the time. "We were wrong to go in without the United Nations, and now we need their help."

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) said Bush's failure to have a plan for securing the country after deposing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has exposed U.S. soldiers to even more danger. He said he would support sending in more U.S. forces to protect those who are there now.

Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) condemned Bush's leadership, but he said Lieberman is wrong to call for sending more U.S. troops. "That would be the worst thing," he said, arguing that the United States needed needs to ask for forces from other countries.

Other candidates said Bush has not been forthcoming about the long-term cost of the occupation. "The president needs to tell us the truth about the cost," Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) said.

That’s pretty lame, John. Is that the best you can do?

So the conventional wisdom seems to be that the gang of nine stayed largely away from hammering each other, with the exception of Lieberman’s attacks on Dean, and went after Bush. This is good, and needs to continue. And you can expect Lieberman to continue his assaults on Dean because it is the only thing that gives his campaign any definition as the Anyone But Dean wannabe.

Steve :: 9:17 PM :: Comments (13) :: Digg It!