Debatable Points

Democrats were lucky that their presidential candidates' debate Saturday night was an invitation-only event for political junkies, aired live in Washington and rebroadcast on C-SPAN several times Sunday. The nine contenders weren't ready for prime time, anyway.

The closest thing to a winner was former vice-presidential nominee and current Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who coherently and consistently presented himself as a moderate on economic issues, a moralist on social issues and a hawk on the last two wars with Iraq. While these views put him at odds with most Democratic activists, Lieberman's low-key, often lugubrious delivery smoothed his rough edges, as did his reminders that he had marched for civil rights in the 1960s and run with Al Gore in the disputed presidential election of 2000.

Meanwhile, the other major candidates all had trouble making the transition from the peace primary of the past year -- where several competed as crowd pleasers, bashing President Bush's preemptive war with Iraq -- to the postwar populist primary, where the winner will be the candidate best able to address the domestic issues of economic decline and corporate irresponsibility.

The peace primary's winners were Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a decorated Vietnam veteran who voted to authorize military action but criticized Bush's policies of preemption and unilateralism, and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), who wholeheartedly opposed the war. But both candidates squabbled Saturday night to neither's benefit.

Kerry, whose appeal to Democrats is his potentially devastating counterpunch against any Republican foolish enough to question his patriotism, found himself having to respond ("I don't need lectures in courage") to Dean's claim to be the strongest supporter of gay rights and then ("I actually fought in a war") to Lieberman's claim to have the best credentials on national security.

His voice hoarse and his remarks mostly devoted to disagreeing with Dean and Lieberman, Kerry had little opportunity to make his own case until his closing statement, when he quoted Robert F. Kennedy's famous citation of George Bernard Shaw: "Some . . . see things that are and ask, 'Why?' I dream things that never where and ask, 'Why not?'" But Kerry's weary and withdrawn performance recalled RFK less than it brought to mind Edmund Muskie, the early Democratic favorite in 1972 whose fortunes faded once it became clear he would not win the nomination easily.

For his part, Dean, while continuing to claim to be the only principled Democrat, segued from citing his stance against the war to promoting his opposition to Bush's tax cuts and the "No Child Left Behind" education law.

Meanwhile, the two leading contenders for the part of populist -- former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and first-term Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- proved that, together, they'd be a formidable candidate.

Gephardt should benefit politically from an economy that amounts to a perfect populist storm: rising unemployment, lagging wages, declining health coverage, skyrocketing CEO salaries, disappearing pensions and a president whose panacea is top-bracket tax cuts. Gephardt has spent 15 years as the leading national politician who sees issues from taxes to trade through the lens of working-class living standards; as a result, this should be his moment. And, after two years when his role as House Democratic leader seemed to confine, not define, him, Gephardt has offered intriguing ideas for universal health coverage, portable pensions and an international minimum wage.

But, when questioned or challenged Saturday night by debate moderator George Stephanopoulos and rivals Edwards and Lieberman, Gephardt spoke congressionalese, not populist plain-speaking. He said his health plan would reduced the costs of "uncompensated care" -- an apparent but unexplained reference to uninsured people getting free treatment in emergency rooms. In his best answer of the evening on his trademark issue of trade, Gephardt criticized "PNTR" (the abbreviation for "permanent normalized trade relations") for China -- a bloodless, bureaucratic euphemism for what used to be called "most favored nation status." Attacked by Kerry for failing to support stringent energy and environmental requirements for auto companies, Gephardt lapsed into the jargon of "CAFÉ standards" instead of talking about autoworkers' jobs.

An insider candidate, Gephardt must appeal to outsiders -- working-class voters who appreciate his opposition to top-bracket tax cuts, job-destroying trade deals and elitist economic policies that disregard dwindling paychecks, pensions and health plans.

While Gephardt was occasionally unintelligible, Edwards was at one point unforgivable. In what was clearly a prepared argument, the former trial lawyer presented a pseudo-populist attack against Gephardt's comprehensive but complex plan to require all employers to offer health insurance to their employees and subsidize new and existing corporate health coverage with federal funds raised by repealing Bush's tax cuts.

Edwards charged that this would amount to "taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pockets of working families" and putting the money in corporate coffers -- a point he hammered home with the scripted sound bite, "You're in good hands with Enron." Not only does this distort Gephardt's plan, it also takes Bush's side, implicitly crediting the president's tax cuts with benefiting what Edwards calls "regular people."

Edwards' demagoguery is disappointing because he is the Democrat best able to speak American English and was the only candidate in the debate Saturday night to attack corporate wrongdoing, presenting his own 20 years as a trial lawyer as an epic battle against "big corporations, pharmaceutical corporations [and] HMOs."

For all his surplus of substance, Gephardt would be at a disadvantage against Edwards even if the congressional veteran were as plainspoken as the courtroom virtuoso. With his detailed plans to make business and government serve working-class Americans as they did during the post-World War II years, Gephardt is running as the candidate of the 1950s-era social contract, exemplified by his quotation Saturday night of auto magnate Henry Ford: "I need to pay my workers well enough so that someone can buy my cars."

With Ford long gone, Gephardt suffers from the weakening of the industrial unions that have been his strongest supporters and whose achievements lent credibility to the view that corporate America can be compelled to do right by workers and consumers. In today's America, the legal researcher Erin Brockovich has replaced the union activist Norma Rae as the working-class hero. Litigation, meanwhile, is replacing regulation as the ticket to corporate accountability, and John Edwards may thus defeat Dick Gephardt in the populist primary.

Whichever of these two wins the populist primary will be at an advantage against the morose moderate Lieberman, the moralistic maverick Dean and perhaps even the counterpuncher Kerry, who has yet to define himself as the answer to Democrats' dreams as well as the agent of Republicans' nightmares.

David Kusnet was President Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter from 1992 through 1994 and was a speechwriter for Democratic presidential nominees Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. He is the author of Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

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