NBC's Brian Williams concluded last night's Democratic presidential debate by asking Senator Joe Biden whether, among the eight candidates on stage, he considered anyone a winner. They were "all winners on this stage," Biden said. If this had been a talk show, that's when the audience would have breathed a simultaneous, Awww. You half expected the candidates to drift downstage for a group hug.
For an event so focused on the war in Iraq, the debate at South Carolina State University was disappointingly peaceful. The candidates addressed each other as "Barack" and "John" and--Dennis Kucinich's words--"my good friends." Even when Williams threw up a few mischievous alley-oops, they opted for lay-ups instead: John Edwards, asked whether he meant to tweak Hillary by suggesting that members of Congress who voted for the Iraq war admit they made a mistake, denied it and turned the discussion toward restoring trust in the presidency. When Williams offered Hillary the chance to rebut Rudy Giuliani's remark that the country would be less safe with a Democratic president, she instead focused on Bush's rhetoric. He later asked the candidates to name their biggest mistakes of the last four years. Hillary mentioned weapons inspectors and WMDs: In other words, she made the mistake of believing Bush. The rule of evening seemed to be, Don't bash each other when you can bash the president.
Of course, that's what you get when you stage a debate nine months in advance of the primaries, the earliest in campaign history. It's too soon for candidates to go on the offensive--there will be plenty of time for that. (That time may come sooner than you think, as polls show Obama creeping up on Hillary.) Plus, the group knows it has the polls on its side--at least for the moment. Four of the eight candidates walked in hot off the Senate floor, having passed an Iraq funding bill complete with a timetable for withdrawal. According to one poll, 64 percent of those surveyed favor setting a timetable for pullout by 2008. Why spoil the mood with barbs?
That's not to say the evening lacked fighting words. Most of them came from the mouths of Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who are, not coincidentally, the two longest-shot candidates. At one point, after Obama had just emphasized his commitment to diplomacy, Kucinich quoted an earlier statement by Obama that he would keep all options on the table regarding Iran. "You're setting the stage for another war," Kucinich said. Gravel bristled, too, and went after Biden: "Joe... you have a certain arrogance. You want to tell Iraqis how to run their country." When discussing what he called America's excessive defense spending, Gravel burst out, "Who are we afraid of? Who are you afraid of, Brian? I'm not!" He also described how Osama bin Laden, when he found out about the Iraq invasion, was so excited he was "rolling in his blankets."
But, on nights like these, where the byword is unity, madcap performances tend to emphasize the frontrunners' equanimity. ("Vote Edwards: He doesn't wave his hands around like a crazy person.") When Gravel grilled Obama on his Iran remarks--"Who the hell are we gonna nuke!?"--the camera cut away to a reaction shot of Obama nodding politely. "I'm not planning to nuke anyone right now," Obama reassured him. Long-shot candidates take flak for entering debates when they have no chance of winning. But, in this case, they served as useful foils for the more careful candidates--those might actually get elected.
Declaring winners and losers seems a little arbitrary. Hillary behaved like a front-runner: calm and direct, while firmly grounding her statements in policy. She mentioned Bill only once, in a brief anecdote about traveling to the site of the Columbine shooting. Obama drew applause after saying that the confederate flag belongs, not on public buildings, but "in a museum." Bill Richardson came off as confident and competent, emphasizing his executive experience. His biggest self-proclaimed flaw? "I'm impatient: I try to change [things] too rapidly. ... I'm not perfect." It's hard, trying to accomplish so much!
Even Biden, perhaps the most gaffe-prone of the whole bunch, appeared remarkably collected. As others have already pointed out, the 60-second format suited him well. He responded to Williams's Iraq question--Is the war "lost"?--with more specificity than the other candidates, advocating a decentralized government split along sectarian lines rather than the current coalition government. During the debate's second round, ominously titled "Elephants in the Room," Williams asked Biden if he had the discipline to overcome his reputation as a "gaffe machine" of "uncontrolled verbosity." "Yes," Biden said. It was more a grunt than a word. He couldn't have put it better. (Still, for all his slickness last night, Biden nearly returned to "clean, articulate" territory when he praised the "incredible capability" of the historically black college hosting the debate. Luckily for him, he left the praise at that.)
The debate's structure demanded superficiality: Answers were limited to a minute, and there was little opportunity for follow-ups or cross-examining. Williams even framed some questions by asking for a show of hands. ("How many of you, in your adult lifetime, have had a gun in the house?" That Gravel raised his hand didn't make this viewer particularly comfortable.) And, with the questions spread thinly over eight candidates, it was easy to forget some of them were even there. (Chris Dodd's very presence surprised me at least three times.) With so many bodies onstage, candidates had the difficult task of trying to stand out, but in the right ways--to distinguish themselves while still looking distinguished. As a result, answers sometimes sounded like power point presentations on speed. What's Barack Obama's health care plan? Pooling, improved technology, catastrophic insurance. How would Bill Richardson fix Iraq? Share oil revenues, talk to Syria and Iran, have other countries take over custody. Richardson in particular seemed to enjoy numbering things. But there was one gratifying aspect to the debate's abbreviated structure: Even when the candidates dodged questions, it seemed forgivable--60 seconds of evasion feels a lot less evasive then three minutes of it.
To see some real action, you'll probably have to wait for a few more Democratic debates--or watch the Republicans next week. Their forum promises to be much pricklier. Now that John McCain has started (read: restarted) his campaign, he may try to revive his sagging poll numbers by going after Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney on social issues. I'm so excited, I'm rolling in my blankets.
By Christopher Beam