Friday, September 26, 2003

DEM TWO. I only know yesterday's Democratic debate from its transcript, and so cannot offer commentary on John Kerry's haircut or Wesley Clark's podium manner or any other such details of importance in accredited commentators. But the text is not embarrassing, nor even too dispiriting.

Not that the candidates aren't a little silly. With so many participants, these debates currently resemble open auditions for a junior college production of All the King's Men, aspirants for which have been mischievously told that Willie Stark was modeled on John F. Kennedy. Even relying on the transcript, I can see each player strutting and fretting his or her sixty seconds upon the stage, and hear the grinding of gears as the moderators, more spineful than most such I've experienced, redirect a candidate's attention back to the question at hand.

One has to love the evasive answering techniques on display. No one, but no one, directly addressed the "Free Trader or Made in America" question. And rightly so, because it's a very unfair question. But still, since when do politicians need a good reason to wriggle, and since when do I need a good reason to enjoy their wriggling?
WILLIAMS: Beginning with Congressman Gephardt, it's the subject of trade. Do you wear the label "free trader" or "Made in America"?

GEPHARDT: I'm for a progressive trade policy and I will be a president who will lead not only America but the entire world toward a trade policy that will help every business and every worker in the world. That's what we need.

That doesn't just fail to answer Williams' question -- it fails to answer any question.

Lieberman got a few more jokes in, even one playing on the word "fucked." What would Tipper Gore think? More importantly, what Lieberman's really about? A lot of that culture-scold thing he works so assiduously on the hustings falls away at these debates. It's refreshing, and his relaxation shows a keen awareness that nothing at this stage of the campaign means much of anything, a trait which must be admired. It may be that Judgmental Joe dons and doffs the hairshirt as easily as an actor dons and doffs a costume. That would be a relief. Well, his old man did run a package store.

Dean seems a little rattled ("These days I feel my need to restate practically every position I have based on all the things these guys have said about me in the last three or four weeks"). But who wouldn't be? When you're the frontrunner and you've got nine challengers, one of them a late entry with military props, you have a right to some prickliness. Frankly I'd like to see him punch through that hoarse, Jerry-Brown-vintage faux-outrage and show some real anger. You're supposed to be Jed Bartlett, for Chrissakes! Smoke a cigarette or something.

I do find it remarkable that, regarding global trade issues, most of the candidates have staked out an ideological corridor that one might call "mend NAFTA, don't end NAFTA": renegotiate existing treaties so that the global little guy gets a fairer shake. That sounds pretty middle of the road, which is to say, possibly acceptable to a majority of voters. And that's weird, because we tend to think of these issues in apocalyptic terms -- global enslavement vs. anarchy. It's downright soothing to imagine that we might find our global trade routes smoothed by legislation, not littered with molotov cocktail debris. Probably a false hope, but hey, a guy can dream.

I still think the old dogs have the pole position, and if a time-traveller zipped in here now and told me it was all Kerry, I wouldn't be at all surprised. But it's September 2003. Who knows? Moreover, who cares?

I must add that I am pleased at the figure Revered Al is cutting these days. The most cheerful, if not the proudest, vote I ever cast was for Sharpton when he ran for Senate in the 1994 Democratic primary. What a wonderful thing it was to answer "Sharpton!" when my friends asked how I voted, and what entertaining responses I got! If you're a little further down my list this year, Rev, it is not due to lack of affection, but to the nagging fact that in the national crisis we now face, we need the sturdiest beam possible to hold off collapse.

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