I watched what was advertised as the first Democratic debate of the political season. MSNBC carried a 90-minute question and answer session wherein all eight announced Democratic candidates for President answered questions from NBC anchor Brian Williams. Williams was fair but he did not lob tough questions at the candidates. For example, Williams might have asked why each of the candidates flew in to Columbia, South Carolina by private jet instead of by commercial airlines “ global warming and all that, you know.
For what it is worth, here is my evaluation of how each candidate performed: First, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM) would have had to come out swinging in order to distinguish himself from the rest of the group. He did not do so. Instead, he was not decisive. I don”t believe he stood out from the group. Thus, I don”t think he accomplished what he needed to become a cinch for the Vice Presidency.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) was her usual self. She was tough and clear but certainly did not soften her image. I thought Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) helped himself because he appeared to be prepared for the tougher questions. He has been charged by critics as not having any beef. This time he appeared to have some.
I was about to give former Senator John Edwards (D-NC) high marks when Williams asked him who was his moral leader. At first he couldn”t answer the question. Finally he ended up saying his wife and his father. That looked bad and otherwise spoiled what was a good showing.
Among the also-rans, my view is that Senator Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) did himself the most good. He actually looked Presidential. There was one moment of levity. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE) was asked if he would assure the nation that he would control his tendency to be verbose. His one word answer, which drew great laughter from the audience, was “Yes.” Other than the final question, Biden did not have a chance to demonstrate his foreign policy expertise.
Third-string candidates also were in attendance. This may be their last time to appear on the national stage. In 2004 Democrats had many national panels. In addition to the major candidates such as Senator John F. Kerry (D-MA) and Vermont Governor Howard P. Dean, III, Democrats permitted defeated Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) and Reverend Al Sharpton to remain during the string of debates and joint appearances, which continued for months. To have elevated Sharpton and Braun as on par with major candidates raised questions inside Democratic circles. They have done it again. Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-IL) said he was against the Iraqi War before any other candidate had said so. Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel (D-AK), among the also-rans, embarrassed the other candidates by accusing them of refusing to do what is necessary to end the war. Gravel has not been heard of for many years. When his hair was black and he was a Senator in 1972 he ran for Vice President when his colleague Senator George S. McGovern (D-SD) won the Democratic nomination. He did not win. In fact, he ran third on the ballot. He was defeated by Frank Murkowski (R-AK) in 1980 and has been hiding since.
Newsweek stated there was no clear winner in the debate and NBC’s Tim Russert agreed. He said Senators Clinton, Obama and former Senator Edwards are still the front-runners. In Russert’s opinion none of the other five candidates broke out of the pack. The establishment has spoken.
With so many candidates, it would be impossible to have a real debate. If the primaries narrow the group to one or two candidates a back-and-forth exchange might be possible. This upcoming Republican debate will serve to introduce those candidates to the American people. 75% of Democrats say they like their lineup of candidates. Unfortunately, only 50% of Republicans say they like their choices. Either the Republican exchange will serve to broaden support among the existing candidates or it will add momentum to former Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN) to run. Thompson has been scoring near 20% of the vote although he is not yet a candidate. That is a clear sign that Republicans don”t care much for their field.
People might run look at the national media meat-grinder and decide not to vote. That would be tragic for the nation. I keep hearing about the need to run a third-party candidate. The problem is the major parties have rigged the process so that only a billionaire has a chance to run. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to be considering a run, although his interest seems to have waned. Bloomberg, in running for re-election as Mayor of New York, spent extraordinarily. He trounced his opponents. Bloomberg has received a great deal of coverage as “Mayor Mike,” a cheerleader for the revival of New York City. If he ran he would have to fight his image as a Northeastern liberal. Bloomberg is the owner of media properties and has run a city with a budget larger than that of most nations. Could he win? In 1992 H. Ross Perot drew 19% of the vote by spending his own money. But before he withdrew from the fray, claiming that the Republicans were trying to ruin his daughter’s wedding, he actually had been leading both President George Herbert Walker Bush (the incumbent) and Governor William J. (Bill) Clinton. By the time Perot re-entered the race he had been tainted as a crazy candidate, so he no longer was competitive with Bush and Clinton but still did better than any national candidate since Governor George C. Wallace in 1968. Perot carried a greater popular vote but Wallace carried more States than any candidate since Senator Robert M. LaFollette, running against incumbent President Calvin Coolidge (R) and John W. Davis (D) in 1924. Following the Wallace and Perot runs the national parties made it harder and harder for a non-billionaire candidate to win.
Unless the Republican group of candidates begins to excite the voters, or a candidate such as Thompson steps in to run, whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee for President will be the odds-on favorite to win the Presidency. That means President Bush is likely to close out a Republican era when he finishes the end of his second term in 2009. In fact, major political observers say if the Democrats don”t win, and thus the Republicans win a third straight term, it would likely be the end of the Democratic Party. Perhaps. But after President Gerald R. Ford lost in 1976 I recall comparable predictions. Yet it was just one term later that Ronald W. Reagan won the Presidency and for the first time since 1953 a Republican Senate was elected.
I believe it is clear that America likes the two-party system. On the other hand, there is a current belief that neither party is listening to the public. We will see how well the Democrats do in 2008. If they are seen to understanding the concerns of the average American they will win and win big. On the other hand if the Democrats are seen as weak, as they were in 1972, they will lose and lose big. Right now any serious observer would bet on the Democrats.
—A Free Congress Foundation Commentary. Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.