Initial Reports From Last Night's Debate-Lieberman Attacks Dean Over Israel, and Fails
A couple of early dispatches from last night’s Democratic candidates debate reflect that Howard Dean had a great night, John Kerry had a good, but unimpressive night, and Joe Lieberman got smacked down (rightly so) by Dean for demagoging the issue of America’s support for Israel.
Two pieces posted by Slate writers Chris Suellentrop and William Saletan both agree that Dean scored big in dealing with Lieberman’s attempts to sandbag him about his support for Israel. Saletan writes about Dean:
Howard Dean's performance was near-perfect. Strategically, Dean is way ahead of the pack. He has fulfilled the affirmative part of the campaign: giving people enough reasons to vote for him. Now he has the luxury of focusing on the negative part: dispelling the reasons to vote against him. Accordingly, his preparation for the last two debates seems to have focused on acting presidential and conveying competence in military and foreign policy. Tonight he accomplished both. He was at ease and in command. Rectifying his performance in Albuquerque, he projected confidence without constipation.
Dean started by answering an Iraq question with references to North Korea, Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists, and Bush's 18-month absence from the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. As in Albuquerque, he repeatedly emphasized presidential "judgment." To head off soft-on-defense charges, he said he wouldn't withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq immediately, since "we cannot lose the peace." He even steered his closing statement away from the economy to defense—a maneuver that's highly unconventional for a Democratic governor seeking the presidency during a recession but consistent with Dean's current strategy of shoring up his weak suits rather than playing his strong ones.
The big test came half an hour into the debate, when panelist Juan Williams asked Dean whether his recent comments about not taking sides between Israel and the Palestinians signaled an intention to curb U.S. support for Israel. "Of course I don't mean any such thing," Dean replied. In previous debates, Dean has gotten angry and defensive in answering such questions. This time, he was cool as a cucumber, laying out his case that the United States must be "a credible negotiator" to the Palestinians as well.
Williams turned to Joe Lieberman, who proceeded to accuse Dean of betraying American values and interests by walking away from the U.S. alliance with Israel, specifically by saying that Israel must dismantle many settlements in the West Bank. Dean's response was perfect. "I'm disappointed in Joe," he said, more in sorrow than in anger. "My position on Israel is exactly the same as Bill Clinton's." Lieberman, who was standing next to Dean, interjected that this wasn't true, but Dean, without turning to Lieberman or raising his voice, politely continued, "Excuse me, Joe. I didn't interrupt you, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't interrupt me." Dean proceeded to make his case for an "honest broker" role, concluding, without rancor, "It doesn't help, Joe, to demagogue this issue. We're all Democrats. We need to beat George Bush so we can have peace in the Middle East."
He then concludes with this dead-on assessment:
In some ways, the exchange encapsulated the massive shift that has taken place during the campaign. If the candidates had debated a year ago, Lieberman would have been the heir apparent, and Dean would have been the one fighting for attention. Dean would have done the attacking, and Lieberman would have shaken his head in disappointment at such demagoguery. Surely, Lieberman would have concluded with the same plea to unite the party against Bush. Oh, well. Live by the olive branch, die by the olive branch.
Suellentrop writes about Dean:
After the debate's testy exchange between Lieberman and Howard Dean over Israel policy, in the "spin room" Howard Dean unveils a peace proposal that I hadn't heard from him before: The president needs to "swallow his pride" and send "the two men who have done more for Israel" over the past 50 years than any other Americans—Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter—to the Middle East to negotiate a peace settlement.
(On the subject of the Dean-Lieberman dynamic, I enjoyed Dean's appropriation of Lieberman's patented "deeply saddened" routine: "I'm disappointed in Joe" for attacking me on Israel policy, he said during the debate. "It doesn't help, Joe, to demagogue this issue.")
In other words, Dean was extremely well-prepared for this debate, and Lieberman wasn’t.
As for Kerry, Saletan says:
Kerry was as lively as Kerry gets. He'll never convince viewers like me, who find him stiff and absurdly formal, that he isn't stiff and absurdly formal. But that problem is superficial, and we can get over it. Kerry's more fundamental problem is his tendency to try to have everything both ways, chiefly by rigging his answers with caveats. He approaches political questions the way soldiers approach urban warfare: He never walks into a sentence without leaving himself a way out.
Tonight, however, Kerry took a holiday from his inner political consultant. He said what he thought. To a question about sending more U.S. troops to Iraq, he replied, "No, we do not need or want more American troops to do that." To a question about approving Bush's request for $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said that if Bush didn't answer certain questions satisfactorily, "I'd be prepared to vote no." After one of the debate's panelists said Kerry hadn't given a "straightforward answer" to a question about Bush's candor on Iraq, Kerry responded, "The reason I can't tell you to a certainty whether the president misled us is because I don't have any clue what he knew about it or whether he was just reading what was put in front of him." In these and other answers, Kerry was clear, candid, and matter-of-fact. His only relapse into convolution was when he said of his vote for the Iraq war resolution, "If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president." Kerry went on to say something unintelligible, which sounded like the beginning of an attempt to explain how voting to authorize war was necessary to stop it. I'd love to hear the rest.
Howard Kurtz has a good run down from the national papers on their coverage of the debate last night, including his dismissal of a slamdown piece against Dean by Rupert Murdoch-owned Deborah Orin of the New York Post, a paper and a reporter that shouldn’t even be counted as a newspaper. It is really a rag for the right wing and she is nothing more than a leading scribe masquerading as a journalist. Of interest in Kurtz’ column is his reference to two articles, one by Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory, who advises Kerry to heat up, lighten up, be clear, and speak from your heart, which as I mentioned above Saletan feels he did last night. The other piece Kurtz references is by Salon’s Farhad Manjoo (unfortunately a subscription piece), who asks if Dean’s campaign is “too wired” with internet-savvy, wealthy white people, while failing to win over traditional Democratic constituencies? But Manjoo states “But what's remarkable about Dean's grass-roots organizers is that many already seem to realize that it's time to do something about minority outreach; the connected hive of Dean supporters, held together by blogs and hundreds of Yahoo groups, is, in a sense, self-aware, and capable of reacting to the shifting winds of a political campaign.”