Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate War, Terrorism
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KWAME HOLMAN: It is still more than eight months before the first primary votes are cast, but the scene last evening outside the Martin Luther King, Jr., Auditorium on the campus of South Carolina State University befit an Election Day rally.
Inside, the eight Democratic presidential candidates came together for their first debate, moderated by Brian Williams of NBC News and broadcast nationally on MSNBC.
His first questions were about the Iraq war. And he asked former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who repeatedly has apologized for his 2002 vote authorizing the war, if he faulted New York Senator Hillary Clinton for not doing the same.
FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: I mean, Senator Clinton and anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves and decide whether they believe they voted the right way. If so, they can support their vote. If they believe they didn’t, I think it’s important to be straightforward and honest…
KWAME HOLMAN: Williams then gave Senator Clinton the chance to respond.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: Brian, I take responsibility for my vote. Obviously, I did as good a job I could at the time. It was a sincere vote, based on the information available to me. And I’ve said many times that, that if I knew then what I now know, I would not have voted that way.
KWAME HOLMAN: The debate came on the same day the Senate passed an emergency Iraq war spending bill that includes a timetable for withdrawing the troops. But Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich said not even that bill was strong enough.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D), Ohio: I think it’s inconsistent to tell the American people that you oppose the war, and yet you continue to vote to fund the war. Because every time you vote to fund the war, you’re re-authorizing the war all over again.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kucinich also challenged Illinois Senator Barack Obama on comments he recently made about Iran, that a military option should not be taken off the table if Iran pursues nuclear weapons ambitions.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I think it would be a profound mistake for us to initiate a war with Iran. But have no doubt: Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region. I understand that, but they’re in the process of developing it. And I don’t think that’s disputed by any expert. They are the largest state sponsor of terrorism…
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed by…
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: … Hezbollah and Hamas.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: And there is no contradiction, Dennis, between…
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: It is disputed.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Let me finish. There is no contradiction between us taking seriously the need, as you do, to want to strengthen our alliances around the world. But I think it is important for us to also recognize that, if we have nuclear proliferators around the world that potentially can place a nuclear weapon into the hands of terrorists, that is a profound security threat for America, and one that we have to take seriously.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kucinich got some help from former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, who urged diplomatic engagement with Iran, rather than military force or sanctions.
FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL (D), Presidential Candidate: These things don’t work. They don’t work. We need to recognize them. And you know something? Who is the greatest violator of the non-proliferation treaty? The United States of America. We signed a pledge that we would begin to disarm, and we’re not doing it. We’re expanding our nukes. Who the hell are we going to nuke? Tell me, Barack. Barack, who are you wanting to nuke?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I’m not planning to nuke anybody right now, Mike, I promise.
MIKE GRAVEL: Good. Good, we’re safe.
KWAME HOLMAN: NBC’s Williams also asked the candidates how they would respond to another terrorist attack within the United States. First to Senator Obama.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.
The second thing is to make sure that we’ve got good intelligence, a, to find out that we don’t have other threats and attacks potentially out there, and, b, to find out, do we have any intelligence on who might have carried it out so that we can take potentially some action to dismantle that network?
KWAME HOLMAN: Senator Clinton followed.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: If we are attacked, and we can determine who was behind that attack, and if there were nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond.
KWAME HOLMAN: The 90-minute debate, with no opening or closing statements by the candidates, clipped along at a steady pace. In addition to foreign policy, Brian Williams asked about a variety of domestic issues.
On health care, a subject polls suggest will figure prominently in 2008, Senator Edwards said it was important for the candidates to lay out specific details, thought to be a veiled criticism of, among others, Senator Obama.
JOHN EDWARDS: And I think we have a responsibility, if you want to be president of the United States, to tell the American people what it is you want to do. Rhetoric’s not enough. High-falutin’ language is not enough.
And my plan would require employers to cover all their employees or pay into a fund that covers the cracks in the health care system; mental health parity, which others have spoken about; chronic care; preventative care; long-term care; subsidizes health care costs.
KWAME HOLMAN: But New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, touting his experience as an executive, worried about how to pay for universal health care coverage.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: Well, as Democrats, I just hope that we always don’t think of new taxes to pay for programs.
This is what I would do. And I’m a governor. I deal with this issue every day. In our health care plan, my new health care plan, no new bureaucracy. Every American shares, along with businesses, the state, and the federal government.
I would focus on prevention. I would also ensure that the first thing we do is deal with the bureaucracy and inefficiencies in our health care system.
KWAME HOLMAN: Richardson, rated highly by the National Rifle Association, also was asked to explain his support of gun rights in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings in which 33 people were killed.
GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: I’m a Westerner. I’m a governor of New Mexico. The Second Amendment is precious in the West. But I want to just state for the record: A vast, vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding.
I was for instant background checks. We have to make sure that those background checks are state and local, states are properly funded to be able to detect those problems.
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates also touched on a number of hot-button cultural issues. Delaware Senator Joe Biden was asked about last week’s Supreme Court decision upholding a ban on a controversial abortion procedure.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: The truth of the matter is that this decision was intellectually dishonest. I think it’s a rare procedure that should only be available when the woman’s life and health is at stake.
But what this court did, it took that decision, and it put a Trojan horse in, through actually dishonest reasoning, lay the groundwork for undoing Roe v. Wade.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd addressed gay marriage. He supports civil unions, which are legal in his state.
SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: I have two very young daughters who one day may have a different sexual orientation than their parents. How would I like them treated as adults? What kind of housing, what kind of homes, what kind of jobs, what kind of retirement would they be allowed to have?
I think, if you ask yourself that question, you come to the conclusion that I hope most Americans would: that they ought to be able to have those loving relationships sanctioned.
KWAME HOLMAN: And the debate had its moments of levity. Williams asked Senator Biden, known for being somewhat long-winded, how he would keep from making any verbal gaffes.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, Host, “NBC Nightly News”: Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Yes.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Thank you, Senator Biden.
KWAME HOLMAN: These candidates expect to participate in several more debates between now and next year’s primaries. The next scheduled debate will be in New Hampshire in June.
No incentive to be argumentative
RAY SUAREZ: The Republican presidential candidates hold their first debate next Thursday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
But for now, back to Shields and Brooks for their thoughts on the Democrats. And at one point, David, Joe Biden looked at the field and said, "This is a stage full of winners." What did you think of the Democratic field?
DAVID BROOKS: Impressive field, actually. I think the Democrats and the Republicans have a lot of good candidates. I think the course of the race right now is that Obama has tremendous momentum. I meet people, you see it in the polls, just tremendous enthusiasm for Obama.
He's rising. A lot of more people, as they get to know him, are becoming more comfortable with him, and I really think he's climbing right up on Clinton and is virtually at the point where he's the front-runner.
RAY SUAREZ: What do you make of the encounter last night? Is there a risk in appearing with lesser mortals frequently this early?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it doesn't help, but I don't think it hurt. I mean, they're not particularly argumentative with each other. They were argumentative with President Bush. He wasn't sticking around.
John Dickerson of Slate made an interesting point that, among the three front-runners, there really is not an incentive to be argumentative with each other. Obama's whole theme is that he is a non-confrontational person. He rises above politics.
John Edwards ran four years ago vowing never to criticize, and I think that's somewhat in his nature. Hillary Clinton can't criticize, because the Clintons are thought of as too mean. And if she does it, that feeds into that. So they each have an incentive not to be confrontational with each other, and this debate was certainly not a rivalry between them.
RAY SUAREZ: Does that end at some point, Mark? Do the gloves have to come off with each other, especially if the field remains large?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, even if it doesn't. The biggest problem in a big field -- if the three of us are running, and I attack you, David's the beneficiary. The only time, really, attack politics works well is when there are two people in the contest. So it's not only not smart at this point, it's very dangerous.
What hit me last night watching it was, yes, Obama, yes, Clinton, yes, Edwards, as the front-runners with most of the press attention, but you look at Chris Dodd, senator from Connecticut, extremely able and respected legislator, Bill Richardson, you know, a multifaceted public servant in his career, and Joe Biden. I mean, I just thought, you know, these, in other years, would be front-rank and front-burner candidates.
I thought Biden gave the best answer of the night. It was reminiscent of the second debate in 1984, when Ronald Reagan had ended the previous debate with a rambling soliloquy about walking down the Pacific Coast Highway, and the Wall Street Journal did a front-page piece about, was he losing it? And the first question about his age, and he said, "I'm not going to hold my opponent's" -- Walter Mondale's -- "youth and inexperience against him."
And it just put a hiatus on it. Joe Biden, you know, did a wonderful rebuttal to the charge that he just is a motor mouth last night. I thought Bill Richardson gave the most honest answer when they asked him why he hadn't gone after Alberto Gonzales.
Room for some Democrats to rise
RAY SUAREZ: And remind people what that answer was.
MARK SHIELDS: And the answer was yes. It's because I know where he comes from. We're both Hispanic, but I know where he comes from. I know what he's been through. I know who he is, and I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought it was an incredibly human and revealing answer.
RAY SUAREZ: But one that does him a lot of good?
DAVID BROOKS: I think so. You know, even this year -- you know, we're nine months away from the first primary vote, let alone, I don't know, nine years away from the general election, whatever it is. And right now, the campaigns are in their full mode.
They're binging each other every day. They're trading shots. The candidates are sleeping four hours a night. This is going to take a toll. There are going to be crashes on this road.
And people like Bill Richardson, who happens to be the most experienced candidate in the race, or Joe Biden, who actually has an intelligent plan for a post-Iraq world, those people will rise. They will have their moment in the sun. Those Democrats will rise.
I think, on the Republican side, Newt Gingrich will rise. So there's a lot of fluidity in those midlevel candidates. One of them will be up there. Where was Howard Dean at this point four years ago?
MARK SHIELDS: Good point. And the other thing I thought last night, I mean, Senator Clinton is incredibly confident, incredibly competent, has great possession of facts, and had the ability on virtually every question to turn it toward her own message.
I was reminded of what Mario Cuomo said 25 years ago, I guess now. He said, "We campaign in poetry. We govern in prose." And there's very little poetry in her presentation, and there's a lot of poetry in Obama.
And it's just interesting. I mean, there was a lot of poetry in Ronald Reagan. There was poetry in Jack Kennedy. There was poetry in Franklin Roosevelt. There's not much poetry...
DAVID BROOKS: And Obama has this upside. He is the only person, I think, running for president this year who has the potential to transform American politics.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I agree.
DAVID BROOKS: All the others, they can win or lose, but politics will look basically the same. But he actually could realign politics.
John McCain's maverick credentials
RAY SUAREZ: Also this week...
MARK SHIELDS: I thought John McCain had that possibility, too.
DAVID BROOKS: He may still.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, I was about to bring up John McCain...
MARK SHIELDS: Excuse me, Ray.
RAY SUAREZ: ... because he officially declared for what everyone knew, that he was in the race this week, but in doing so, tried to separate himself from the still-in-office Bush administration, to which, periodically in the last six years, he's been very close.
MARK SHIELDS: Let's be very blunt: Every one of them has separated themselves from the incompetence of this administration. You listen to Mitt Romney, you listen to Rudy Giuliani, you listen to Jim Gilmore, you listen to any of them, you know, "I run things." And they always want to talk about their record.
John McCain was a Declaration of Independence, I thought, in his -- because he has been identified very much with the surge and is the most visible and vocal. He's been the most relentless critic among those supporters of the war, too, calling Don Rumsfeld the worst secretary of defense in history, saying that Dick Cheney had given the president terrible advice, and the president shouldn't have listened to him, and arguing about the tactics.
People who liked John McCain because he was a maverick in 2000, including me, I disagree with John McCain on the war. I think he's wrong, but he is a maverick. I mean, whatever position he's taken has not been run through a focus group. It's not because it's a popular thing. His maverick credentials, if anything, are burnished in 2008 over where they were in 2000. It's a tougher job now to stand up there, I think, and defend that policy.
Winning the Republican base
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I was glad to see finally John McCain coming out, so to speak, because he had sort of restrained. The weird thing that's happening with the party is that they have three candidates who are not orthodox Republicans in Romney, Giuliani and McCain, but they were pretending to be, in an attempt to please the base, they were trying to be George Allen. And finally, they said, hey, I'm going to be -- at least McCain said this -- I'm going to be who I am.
MARK SHIELDS: That's right.
DAVID BROOKS: And so I think, a, it's an authentic move. And I think it's a good move. The country wants change. They don't want a Bush-lite. So he might as well be different.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it's interesting that you say it wasn't focus-grouped, because this is a campaign that went back into retreat, retrenchment, started to talk internally about how to re-craft the message. And this was a politician that, over the last couple of years, was being talked about for all the ways that he had rounded his sharp edges and conformed to the Bush message on some of the big policy issues.
MARK SHIELDS: He has. I mean, I think John McCain has changed his position on taxes. I mean, he opposed tax cuts in 2001. He was a lonely, courageous voice against them.
Now he's waffled. Now he's for their continuation, even though they're going to expire, because not to continue them would be a tax increase, by John McCain's definition. That's not the John McCain that we came to love and know in 2000.
But, you know, he stood up and, I thought, made specific the differences between himself and the president. And, you know, we'll see where it goes from here. But there was -- it was refreshing to see that Declaration of Independence, I thought.
RAY SUAREZ: Fellows, have a great weekend.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.
DAVID BROOKS: You, too.