Thoughts on April 26 Democratic Debate, Part I

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I haven't had a chance to put my thoughts together from the April 26 Democratic debate and the May 3 Republican primary. I've been typing up a lot of notes, however, and I've decided to post them now before the Democratic debate is a full two weeks gone. It's not as carefully organized as I'd wanted, and it's a bit long, so I'm dividing it into two posts. I'll save the Republican debate for a separate post or two later in the week.

The frontrunners on the Democratic side are Senator Hillary Clinton (NY), Senator Barack Obama (IL), and former Senator John Edwards (NC). I consider the second tier to be Senator Joe Biden (DE), Governor Bill Richardson (NM), and Senator Chris Dodd (CT). I would place former Senator Mike Gravel (AK) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) in a third tier.

Since I am not a Democrat, and I disagree so strongly with all the candidates in the debate on a number of key issues that came up, I don't think it's fair for me to present views on who won or who did best from a Democratic point of view. What I will offer are some views on who I think would be the least disastrous of a crew of eight candidates whose presidencies would all be a turn in entirely the wrong direction on many counts. I also have some thoughts on particular issues and specific stateements of individual candidates.

Overall, Hillary Clinton had the most to lose in the debate, and I don't think she lost much. She has been the frontrunner, and she still seems to be the first choice in most polling. Obama is very close in many polls, though, and he has even overtaken her in some. It's more difficult for a woman in a debate, since lower voices tend to carry better and sound more commanding to most people. She managed to convey authority without coming across in a way that many people would (for reasons not entirely good) take as sounding shrill and bossy. It's particularly difficult with someone with as commanding a presence and voice as Obama, and she passed that test.

What surprised me especially is that I came away thinking of her as one of the less-disastrous candidates in terms of policy. I think I'd prefer Biden in several ways, and I didn't get enough sense of some of Dodd's views to know where he stands with respect to her, but I think she'd beat out any of the other candidates on the criterion of policy alone. I do have serious reservations about putting another Clinton in the White House at this point, given that it would mean the Bush and Clinton families would then dominate the American presidency for a sum total of at least 16 and perhaps 20 straight years. That kind of dynastic hold of two (albeit competing) families is not a good thing. I'm so concerned about this that I'd put Dodd above her in my preferences even without knowing where he stands with respect to her on some key issues. After them come Richardson, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich, and Gravel.

My putting Mike Gravel last should not, however, be taken as a sign that I would consider a Gravel nomination the worst possibility. The opposite is true. I'm very grateful for Mike Gravel. Whenever Republicans will make what would otherwise be straw man arguments against Democratic positions, Republicans will always be able to point to the former senator as an example of someone who actually holds the ridiculous position in question. Several of MSNBC's commentators afterward pointed out that he makes Dennis Kucinich look mainstream Democratic. He told Chris Matthews after the debate that he could get 16 Republicans in the Senate to declare the president a felon simply by repeating a vote daily ad nauseum to try to overturn Bush's veto of such a bill. I'd be very pleased if he were to get the nomination. Any of the Republican candidates could beat him handily, even Ron Paul. (Update: See here for a nice collection of some of his comments during and after the debate.)

It surprised me to realize that I was beginning to find Joe Biden to be the least disastrous of the whole crowd. I do think it would be a dark day if he took the Oval Office, but I think it would be worse with any of the others. He wants to abandon the situation in Iraq that he himself admits we've helped create in Iraq. I've always considered that position to be thoroughly immoral, but his positive plan for going forward in Iraq seems to me to be much better than any of the others' views. Most of them said very little in detail anyway. Not only does have good particulars, but I think his pursuit of a breakup into somewhat autonomous states in Iraq would be good. Only one candidate in each party has suggested this. (I believe it was former Governor Jim Gilmore of Virginia who suggested this on the Republican side, but I don't remember offhand.)

I'm becoming more and more convinced that John Edwards is the worst of the first and second tier candidates. His defense of his profligate lifestyle (which his $400 haircut has brought to center stage) amounted to saying that he is justified in wasting so much money because he remembers what it's like not to have much money. Huh? Wouldn't that be a good reason not to squander the resources you've been blessed with?

Barack Obama knows how to sound like he's treating an issue in a balanced and comprehensive way without actually saying anything of substance. Chris Matthews pointed out afterward that he's a very abstract, unspecific guy, in constrast to Hillary Clinton, who has very specific things in mind when she says anything. That sounds right to me. When asked for our three greatest allies, the only country he mentioned was Japan and only because they're our closest ally near China, not because of anything about Japan in itself. He also went on and on about the European Union and NATO as if the two are interchangeable and as if they are countries. I'm not sure he said much of substance in that whole speech (or in a number of others in the debate).

My former least of all the evils was Bill Richardson. He has been described over and over as a moderate. I no longer accept that label for him. His unequivocal tirade against the Supreme Court's upholding of the partial-birth abortion ban (a ban the Democratic leader in the Senate voted for), his indication of Justice Ginsburg as his favorite justice, and his insistence that the first thing he'd do in office is get out of Iraq immediately made him no longer seem the moderate that he's been played as. On foreign policy, both Biden and Clinton sound more reasonable to me at this point, and I think Dodd might as well. The one issue where he seems more conservative (indeed more conservative than most of the Republicans) is gun control, and I've never been motivated by that issue.

Chris Dodd still defends his vote to approve John Roberts' nomination. I applaud him in that. It was nice to hear him defending civil unions but resisting gay marriage. I'm glad the Democratic party isn't wholeheartedly supporting the idea that government should control what gets called marriage. It's entirely out of character for both parties to take the stands they've taken on this issue. Dodd didn't give a clear account of why, but I like to see disagreement on that issue among the Democratic candidates. It made for some nice disagreements in 2004, and I'd like to see those in future debates. I liked Dodd's demeanor and discussion style at a number of points. Like Richardson, he drifted much further to the left than I had thought of him previously, including a much stronger objection to our presence in Iraq than I had expected of him. I've always been impressed at how he handles himself personally, however, and I think he came across as very presidential, perhaps more than anyone else in the debate. Biden and Clinton were a little below that but not too bad.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, seemed presidential only in a very Bill Clintonian way, because it was clear that he was playing to people's emotions while saying nothing at all of any positive substance (although he did say a lot of specific things about negatives in current policy). The pandering Obama did afterward when pretending to speak the way many black people do was truly offensive. Hillary Clinton's fake southern accent came out at times during the debate, which seemed a little disingenuous to me, but a least she displayed it during the debate. Obama would sound to most people like any white midwestener if they heard him speaking on the radio, and this is what we heard during the debate. Yet his speech to the mainly black crowd afterward was a striking contrast, more like what you'd expect from Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'll continue in another post with some specific points on particular candidates' comments at various times and some general thoughts about the whole lineup on some issues that I consider most important.

4 Comments

I don't know much about Barack Obama but I like a candidate who at least tries to be balanced. This makes them seem more trustworthy. From what I've seen on TV, I feel he is more trustworthy than Hillary Clinton. Hillary can get away without even trying to be balanced because everyone already knows where she stands and cannot erase her image (at least not in my mind). Though I'm conservative, I'd like to see Obama take the Democratic leadership. Hillary seems more likely to divide than to unite the political landscape. I think Obama has the potential to change the face of American politics for the better.

I don't think Obama is balanced at all, though. He talks as if he is, but his voting record is much further to the left than hers. He acts as if he's with black conservatives on race issues by his rhetoric, but then he disagrees with them on every policy matter related to race. He acts as if he wants balance on abortion, but then he votes as pro-choice as anyone possibly could, including not going with his party leader in the Senate for a bill banning partial-birth abortion that got some real bi-partisan support and resisting Bush's moderately conservative Supreme Court nominees, giving reasons that include abortion at the forefront. On economic/fiscal issues he's a high-tax, high-spend liberal with protectionist/isolationist tendencies, much in the mold of Dick Gephardt. I just can't see how he counts as moderate in any way other than his rhetoric, and the fact that he uses moderate-sounding rhetoric just seems dishonest to me in light of his views.

another Clinton in the White House ... would mean the Bush and Clinton families would then dominate the American presidency for a sum total of at least 16 and perhaps 20 straight years.

Don't you mean 24 and perhaps 28? By 2008 we will already have had 20 years of these two families.

Good catch. I can't imagine how I got the numbers I gave.

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