I spent 20 years with the Democratic presidential candidates one day last week, or so it seemed. Their opening speeches at the first of their Campaign 08 forums, held in Carson City, Nevada, were supposed to be limited to 120 seconds, but in most cases, by halfway through, it was all one could do not to surrender to dropsy.
The line of the day came from former senator John Edwards. When asked if he was afraid that voters would suffer election fatigue given that this first debate was taking place more than 600 days before the actual November 2008 balloting, Edwards responded, Ill tell you why there wont be any fatigue. There wont be any, because right now hardly anyone is paying attention.
No kidding. And the few courageous voters who sat through last weeks parade of Democratic contenders would be unlikely to be able to pass a quiz on what they just heard and what difference it made.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack did such a compelling job he had to drop out of the race two days later. Senators Joe Biden and Chris Dodd also made an appearance, and failed to mention why they might actually be running. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, with his deep tan, pressed khakis, blue blazer and cocktail-lounge voice, got our vote as top contender for a job as a network golf commentator.
Anti-war candidate and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich showed up and trashed all the other candidates on their carefully and cautiously crafted halfway positions on Iraq. It must be hard for these politicians to say they were misled, tricked and deceived by George W. Bush, he said. Heres one who wasnt. I organized 125 Democrats in Congress to oppose the war, and I saw all the same information these other candidates did.
He punctuated his talk by saying he was the only candidate who had no strings attached to him. Then, before the live audience of 600 Nevada union members and ABCs cameras, he lifted his arms up to his shoulders and slowly twirled around onstage repeating: No strings. No strings. No strings. No strings.
What heat there was, if any, sparked between the two most prominent candidates on hand: Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. (Barack Obama was the only candidate who didnt attend. He was busy mining Hollywood for campaign gold.) In the strange format imposed by the union sponsors of the forum, each candidate appeared separately, gave a short talk, and then took a few questions from ABCs George Stephanopoulos.
Lets begin with Iraq, were the first words out of Georges mouth as Hillary sat down with him. Her three-minute opening talk omitted any mention of the conflict and focused instead on broad promises of universal health care and college education if she was elected. Why wasnt your vote a mistake? he asked of her 2002 vote to authorize war in Iraq.
Hillary then rolled out her now all-too-familiar verbal tap dance, stubbornly refusing to admit she was, um, wrong. My vote was a sincere vote based on the facts I had at the time. Ive accepted responsibility for it and dont think any of us should get a free pass... Now we have to force the president to change direction, she said. People ask me, well, why dont I want to cut off money to the American troops? But I want to cut off money to the Iraqi troops. Theyre not standing up and getting the job done.
When Edwards spoke a few minutes later, he seemed to aim his rhetorical barrels right at Clinton, emphasizing repeatedly how he was, indeed, wrong to have voted for authorization of the war. I should have never given George Bush authorization, he said. Arguing that America needs a president who is honest, open and moral, he said that after six years of Bush not taking responsibility for the war, it was no longer acceptable to maneuver around the issue as he implied Hillary was doing. Her vote, he said, was between her and her conscience.
Its not enough to debate, give speeches and pass nonbinding resolutions; we have to stop George W. Bushs war, Edwards added. We should start leaving now.
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After their respective presentations, Hillary was the only candidate who stood up the 150 reporters present and buzzed right by us on her way out the door. Edwards hung around and took some questions, including mine as to why the Democrats dont just can all their mush about redeployment... timetables... and benchmarks and instead call clearly and directly for withdrawal from Iraq. Edwards answer: The world is more complicated than that. Some troops might have to be kept ready to intervene in case of genocide in the aftermath of a withdrawal, others might be sent to Afghanistan, still others might be deployed elsewhere in the Gulf, he said.
Of the major Democratic candidates and Kucinich isnt one of them Edwards comes the closest to defining the war as it must be defined: A mistake. A regrettable and damnable mistake.
Too bad the rest of his party leadership cant get there. The last few days in Congress have seen the Reid-Pelosi leadership retreat two more times on Iraq. First, they scuttled Jack Murthas plan to progressively de-fund planned expansions of the war. Then, they torpedoed a more moderate move to repeal and redefine the 2002 congressional mandate for the war. At last look, as we go to press, the House and Senate Democrats were still stumbling around not knowing how to proceed on Iraq.
They should begin the same way you begin any 12-step program: Stop your blabbering, take a long, hard look in the mirror, admit youve been wrong, and get serious about turning it all around.