This post continues my thoughts on the first Democratic presidential debate. Part I is here. Here are several further thoughts about particular candidates or other aspects of the debate, and then I'll move to a few issues I care about and how this debate contributed to our understanding of these candidates on those issues.
Hillary Clinton seems to me to consider her vote to invade Iraq to have been misguided, but she insists that she made the decision based on what seemed right to her at the time. I'm not convinced she's fully changed her mind on whether it's good for us to be in Iraq. Both Clintons have all along disagreed with how Bush has handled things, but enough of what she's said has been enough in agreement with what I think that I can't believe the difference now for her is the difference on the ground in Iraq but rather a different political environment that requires her to say something she doesn't fully agree with. I just don't see her turnaround on that issue as stemming from any real argument. Those on the left who don't trust her are, to my mind, justified in their skepticism. Yet at the same time I hear what she's saying she'd do (and her actions in the Senate are very clearly demonstrating her willingness to do them), and I really don't want that to happen. So even if she doesn't really believe in what she's doing, it seems that she's very willing to do it. In that sense I think she will satisfy those who don't trust her, even if they don't trust her motives. If she has a secret view that we ought to remain in Iraq, it doesn't do anyone any good or bad, since she doesn't seem to want to act on it.
It gives me little confidence to see a presidential candidate unwilling to abide by the rules of the debate. Several candidates kept talking after time was up. Some were instructed to give one name or to say "pass" on a Supreme Court justice. Three got a chance to respond out of eight, because the first three spent so long explaining their answer that time ran out. The same happened when they were told simply to give the names of three countries that are our greatest allies. When that didn't work, a few were asked about our greatest enemies, and no one was content just to give names. I would say that Richardson, Obama, and Biden might have been the worst offenders on this score, although Gravel was much more immature in a number of ways, including his insistence on turning every question into a way to criticize his opponents on being too soft on Bush on Iraq. Brian Williams even made a sarcastic jab at him once when he turned a question on the environment into Iraq. I have to say that things were slightly better in the Republican debate the next week, at least in part because Chris Matthews was trying to learn from how things had gone the previous week and at least in part because several candidates saw how the Democratic candidates were behaving and didn't want to look that bad. So maybe there's hope for future debates.
In his interview with Joe Scarborough after the debate, Dennis Kucinich shows that he knows the difference between being inconsistent in your views and being a hypocrite. He refuses to call Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hypocrites, even though they are in favor of ending the war but have voted to continue funding it, which he sees as an inconsistency. He wants to show them that they are inconsistent, not call them hypocrites, which would a moral charge and not just the intellectual charge that inconsistency is. He went up several notches in my view at that point, even though he wasn't able to explain the difference in the short amount of time Scarborough gave him. It was clear to me that he understood it. He's still second-to-worst in my evaluation of the Democratic presidential candidates, but I was impressed by his recognition of that distinction, which most politicians and political commentators (including most political bloggers) are completely tone-deaf to.
I want to conclude with an overview of what I think of the candidates on a few issues I care a lot about.
Abortion: I see nothing to distinguish any of these candidates from any others on this issue. All who spoke gave an unqualified criticism of the Supreme Court's upholding of the partial-birth abortion ban. All who had the opportunity indicated Justice Ginsburg as their favorite living Supreme Court Justice (although I think Biden added Breyer as well, who is my favorite justice among the four librerals on the court). Those were really the only times it came up. Obama did sound a different note on this issue in saying he'd seek to find common ground between both sides, e.g. reducing teen pregnancy. The problem is that the bulk of politicians (and voters) on both sides can't agree on how to do those things. Agreeing on mere goals when you disagree on means to achieve them doesn't lead to much in the way of results. Does Senator Obama have any specific ideas on how to deal with that or specific proposals for common ground that isn't like that? Probably not. He's not exactly a specific idea kind of person, as I mentioned above.
Race: Nothing in the debate gave me much indication of anything, but Obama's pandering afterward disturbed me greatly. Still, there's something Obama and Richardson might understand about racial issues simply by having to face racism now and then. That does give them an edge over others who favor liberal policies on race and yet clearly don't have much invested in the issues. We do know that Biden and Clinton have been known to make racially insensitive comments. The only racially relevant issue in the actual debate was about the NAACP's boycott of SC for their stance on the confederate flag, and the responses I heard did not help me get a sense of how the candidates are on the most important race issues (which aren't always the ones people usually raise).
Iraq and terrorism: It wasn't all that surprising to me that the only variation among the candidates was how quickly to get out of Iraq. Since I think that's entirely the wrong approach, my evaluation of these candidates is not on which might be good and which might be bad. They'd all be disastrous. But a few would be far less disastrous than others. Biden (D-DE) was the only one with a positive strategy on what to do in Iraq, and a number of the things he's saying are absolutely right. I should note, however, that some of the Republicans said those same things a week later, without the retreat and surrender mentality of the Democrats.
Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) seemed to me to be a bit worse than Biden but not as bad as most of the others. I couldn't get a good read on Dodd. Richardson's insistence on getting out on his first day in office was a bit worrisome, but I don't think Obama's non-statements inspired much confidence, and Edwards is saved from being last only because Kucinich is off in la-la land, with Gravel not even being on the map. Both of them insist that Iran could never be a threat to the U.S., even given that they're the top funder of state-sponsored terrorism and have expressed enough animosity toward the U.S. to make it clear that they wouldn't hesitate to give nukes to terrorists once they h, ave them. Even worse, Gravel went as far as saying that we have no real enemies at all.
Economic issues: The only ones who talked about taxes seemed to me to want to bring things back to levels that are even higher than anything during Clinton's presidency. Edwards in particular was strong on this. They didn't seem to have anything decent to say about how they would fund universal health care. Strikingly, Obama's plan sounded more like something a Republican would come up with. I'm sure it isn't in the details, since this is Obama, who likes to make hard left views sound as if they're in the middle, but it was interesting for him to come off sounding like Bush. I didn't get any sense of fiscal sense from any of them, though, but I do admit to being distracted a little during some of those questions.
Their health insurance proposals sounded like a broken record. Hillary Clinton has the advantage of having made mistakes in the past on the issue and now being ready to try again with some experience. Richardson has gubernatorial experience in trying to do such things. The others merely sounded the continuing gong of fiscal nonsense in saying they could support socialized health care with things that have never produced the amount of revenue that such programs woul dneed. The actual costs of such a plan would require raising taxes beyond even what Edwards is suggesting he'd do, and what he wants to do is insane. So I have to say there's not a shred of sense in the whole lineup on those issues. You'd think that after the runaway spending of the last few years the Democrats would want to take over the fiscal discipline theme to wrest of from its traditional place in the Republican party, and they have been using that kind of language, but the you can't just say you're for fiscal discipline and then come up with budgets and spending bills like the ones they've been putting out since taking over Congress.
So in the end I'm not happy with any of these candidates, but I do think Joe Biden would be the least worrisome to me as a president. Christ Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Hillary Clinton seemed a little more responsible in a number of ways than the rest. Barack Obama doesn't have anything specific to evaluate except an extremely left-wing voting record and some really moderate rhetoric that strikes me as thoroughly dishonest given his voting record. John Edwards is becoming more and more a fringe candidate in terms of views, so much that it amazes me that he's still in third place in polling. Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel serve the purpose of allowing these debates to be real debates, but I don't seriously see either of them as contenders for the nomination, much as I'd love either of them to be the one to face whoever gets the Republican nod.