The Great Debate

The MSNBC-sponsored activity the other evening at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg was billed as a debate among presidential contenders of the democrat persuasion but actually was more of an exercise in entertainment. Bona fide TV debates are rare. About the only ones remembered in this corner were staged by William Buckley, host of the popular public-affairs TV program, “Firing Line,” for many years. Such debates are virtually impossible to pull off because they can’t be done in sound-bites, so politicians are rabidly averse to them. Operating without policy wonks and speechwriters at the elbow, which is often in the suds, is simply too much to ask.

The eight participants fared better than expected, probably because they had a maximum of 60 seconds to make their speeches (well within sound-bite range), sometimes less if categorized by moderator Brian Williams as rebuttals. He allowed Senator Clinton two of those rebuttals (free time) in the early going, so his categorizing techniques became objects of suspicion early in the game. Since there were eight wannabes, who had flown in separately on eight greenhouse-gas-spewing jets, no one was held up to public scrutiny for enough time to make an absolute fool of him/herself, although some tried.

Governor Richardson of New Mexico probably made the most honest statement when he replied to Williams’ question regarding his being the last of the eight (sometimes called Snow Blue and the seven suits) to call for Attorney General Gonzales’ resignation by saying that his tardiness was due to the fact that Gonzales was Hispanic (like himself). That was one of the best lines of the night and said something about the governor’s standards when appraising the capabilities of public officials.

The best reaction of the evening came on Williams’ part when, after a lengthy exposition of Senator Biden’s tendency to excessive verbosity, he wondered if Biden could converse effectively in the international community (crazy question, at that). Biden said “yes” and nothing else, whereupon Williams tore off his spectacles and expressed…dismay, incredulity, disappointment. Who knows? Obviously the senator didn’t rise to the bait, and Williams was left with his jaw hanging open – a great camera shot too good to be true.

Biden bragged that he “borked” Bork and voted against Thomas, Roberts, and Alito vis-à-vis their appointments to SCOTUS. His remarks brought memories of the hearings for Alito and especially for Roberts, when Biden, Leahy, Kennedy and the rest of the crowd were fronted by huge piles of documents, as well as aides at their beck and call, while Roberts calmly discussed SCOTUS decisions from years gone by without even so much as a notepad in front of him. Biden was relatively speechless then, too.

One of the strangest responses to a question that probably had nothing to do with the question (the nature of a lot of “responses”) came from Congressman Kucinich, who stated flatly that the House should be in the process of impeaching Vice President Cheney. He didn’t give a reason for that gem of wisdom, so one wonders if he has a plan to “off” the president but can’t put it into effect since a worse evil would ascend to the Oval Office, one that he hasn’t yet figured another way to neutralize.

Former senator Gravel of Alaska put on the best comedy routine with his quip about not understanding how he ever got into the Senate when he arrived there, but then wondering six months later how any of his fellow senators arrived there, as well. In other words, he thought he and all the rest were fugitives from the loony-bin. Since six of the eight are or were senators, the point was not lost on the crowd.

Senator Obama, when asked what he would do in the event of a terrorist attack, immediately played the race card, launching into a litany about Hurricane Katrina of August 2005 and the administration’s failure to handle that, seemingly unaware of the humongous incompetence of the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana, both democrats and because of whose inaction many lives were lost. Apparently, he also doesn’t understand the enormity of being overwhelmed by a natural disaster not before experienced in this country – a level 5 hurricane hitting a city eight feet below sea level and totally dependent on old levees for its existence.

Senator Clinton answered the same question by citing chapter and verse of what George Bush said in 2001 and 2003, without giving him credit, of course. She also regaled the audience with her attempt at health coverage in 1993, a mistake probably, since a lot of people remember that totally unworkable, bankrupting mess. While former senator Edwards frankly admitted his mistake for approving the Iraqi invasion, she didn’t back up, claiming that if she had known then what she knows now she would have voted differently. She didn’t mention that she had the same information everyone else did.

When Williams brought up the subject of his recent $400-haircuts, Edwards probably remembered the claim he and John Kerry made in 2004, namely, that they had better hair than George Bush and Dick Cheney. His hair didn’t catch the eye any quicker than anyone else’s at the debate, even those who didn’t have much.

None of the candidates said anything new, and all railed against the Iraqi War, apparently separating it from an actual assault on terrorism. Obama and Kucinich gloated that they never supported it, and Gravel pointed the accusatory finger at those who did. Only he among the debaters has had military service, though Dodd was in the Army Reserve at one time, during part of which period he attended law school at the University of Louisville. It’s sobering to think that the nation might have a commander-in-chief who has no conception of how the military works and what it’s supposed to do.

The “debate” among republican contenders next week will likely be as insignificant.