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You, Sir, Are No Gene McCarthy

It’s what professional political consultants call “the pivot” — the usually scripted moment when their candidate-client pauses in the middle of a debate, turns and, face to face, directly unloads some stinging dose of unpleasantness on a deserving or undeserving rival. The possibility of a good, juicy pivot like Lloyd Bentsen’s on-camera massacre of Dan Quayle is about the only motivation I had to tune into Tuesday night’s debate among the Democratic presidential candidates.

What a dreary affair, hardly a debate at all. Rather, 90 minutes of almost uninterrupted Bush-bashing. That’s fun enough in itself but not very enlightening. Indeed, after a few minutes it all gets quite boring. A fine reminder of why Bush’s best and only chance to get re-elected is the paucity of his opponents. There’s a reason why two-thirds of Democrats still can’t even name their party’s national candidates.

Indeed, I had to pinch myself a couple of times and remind myself that this debate, co-sponsored by Fox News and the Congressional Black Caucus, was really happening, that it wasn’t a simulacrum staged by the right-wing network to discredit the Dems.

As is now becoming ritual, the only “pivots” in this debate — apart from various heckler outbursts from the LaRouche cult — were performed by Holy Joe Lieberman. Last week he warned the audience that Howard Dean would provoke a depression if elected. This week, Lieberman used the debate to bait Dean for not being sufficiently politically obedient to Israel.

Lieberman is but a despicable, desperate veteran of dirty-pool politics. And the sooner he’s out of the race the better. That’s not to say I have much sympathy for Governor Dean. He’s a stunning example of how quickly maverick politicians can become so conventional. That was the supposedly insurgent, peoples’ candidate Dean last week standing shoulder to shoulder with the most corporate of Big Money Democrats, Gray Davis, parroting the party-line trope that the California recall is but part of a vast, national Republican conspiracy to overturn elections.

I knew Gene McCarthy, Dr. Dean, and you, sir, are no Gene McCarthy.

 

Republican plot or not, the California recall remains much more engaging and amusing than the national Democratic primary race — at least at this point. Most amusing of all is Cruz Bustamante, who continues to fumble and stumble across the political landscape as some sort of babbling Mr. Magoo. I’m beginning to lament there’ll only be a handful of candidate debates before the October 7 vote. Watching Cruz bungle through them could be more fun than watching a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy marathon.

Even the pivots are better in the gubernatorial debate. In the first matchup last week, Cruz got plinked by an Arianna pivot, you will remember, when she accused him of accepting “legalized bribery” and of “making a mockery” of the law by using a loophole in the state’s already loopy campaign finance regs to funnel $3 million in Indian gaming money into his campaign.

Poor Cruz was still on the spot in the second recall debate, held this past Tuesday and sponsored by the New California Media consortium of ethnic media, even after he announced he was going to solve this image problem by resorting to another loophole: spending the Indian millions on a campaign against Proposition 54 instead of directly for his candidacy [see Bill Bradley on Page 17]. This time Arianna didn’t do a full on-camera pirouette, but she once again pinned down the Cruzinator. “It’s not enough,” she said, referring to the lieutenant governor’s latest funny-money switcheroo. “Give that money back to the tribes so they can give it directly to the anti-54 campaign . . . so your picture and name won’t be on every ad.”

Cruz also got knocked around — as well he should have — by his competitors and some of the questioners for his 1993 vote for Pete Wilson’s law to deprive undocumented immigrants of the right to driver’s licenses, for his 1996 vote to roll back clean-air standards, his support for deregulation of pesticides, deregulation of workers’ comp and deregulation of the energy industry (and we know how that ended up).

Can’t wait until the next debate to see Cruz again and to be reminded how too many Democrats have now taken the lesser-of-two-evils axiom to a new extreme. Is there any limit to how far they are willing to go, how poor and sorry a candidate they are willing to back, all in the name of preventing some imaginary new Schwarzeneggian Third Reich?

Meanwhile, what’s come over Green Party candidate Peter Camejo? The former Trotskyist (he was the Socialist Workers Party candidate for president three decades ago) is perfectly capable of equally bashing both major political parties and their candidates. So why all the recent cozying up to Bustamante? I counted no fewer than five occasions during this week’s debate when Camejo paused to do some very public polishing of Cruz’s apples. During one of these verbal lovefests Camejo put his arm on Cruz’s shoulder and reassured us that, compared to Gray Davis, the lieutenant governor was “different, warmer, more open.” Really?

One wag jokes that the Camejo-Bustamante thaw may be a revival of some sort of SWP/MEChA alliance. Joke or not, it’s as good an explanation as anyone can come up with. Unless Camejo somehow thinks that a grateful Cruz, if elected governor, will name the Green candidate to head up Cal/EPA. I don’t think so.