Who's in the Axis of Evil? After watching the latest -- and, mercifully, last -- Democratic Presidential debate of 2003 on Dec. 9, it became crystal clear that the cabal includes George Bush, Al Gore, and Ted Koppel.
Bush comes as no surprise. The President is the favorite punching bag of the nine Democratic hopefuls and has been all year long. Gore, the party's 2000 standard-bearer, was attacked by candidates frustrated they didn't get the former Veep's endorsement, which earlier in the day went to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean. New York civil rights activist Al Sharpton denounced the deal as "bossism" and snarled that "www.bossism doesn't work on my computer."
LEFT HOOKS. Koppel, the ABC newsman and debate co-moderator, earned the back-of-the-packers' ire by asking repeated questions about their poor poll numbers, meager fund-raising, and/or failure to land a Gore endorsement. "If I were an impolite person, I would tell you where you could take your polls," said fading former front-runner John Kerry, who made news earlier in the week with a slightly impolite reference to the President involving the "f-word" (more on that later). When Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich ripped Koppel, he got stereo pats on the back from the candidates next to him, Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman.
It was that kind of a night. Koppel -- and the media in general -- absorbed some well-justified left hooks for obsessing on political process rather than issues and substance. Dean, the universally acknowledged leader, escaped largely unscathed as his opponents aimed their fire elsewhere. Only Connecticut Senator Lieberman, scorned by his 2000 Democratic Presidential running mate, took it out on the former governor. The 2000 vice-presidential nominee said that Dean, by distancing himself from Clinton New Democratic rhetoric, could be leading the party toward disaster next November.
While Dean looked Presidential and remained above the fray, several other candidates seem to have polished their debate skills through the months of periodic encounters. Retired General Clark, the last entrant, showed passion and a depth of knowledge on issues ranging from "suitcase nukes" in the former Soviet Union to his sophisticated critique of Bush's nation-building philosophy for Iraq. Kerry once again proved to be an able debater when he wasn't kvetching about the co-hosts.
TOO MANY VOICES. Because the Democratic Party insists on including all nine candidates in all debates, the sessions have been of limited value to voters. Almost every time, Sharpton has the funniest lines and most pointed jabs. But everybody knows he's not going to be the nominee -- including Reverend Al.
"It's hard when you have nine candidates," Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt said after the debate, "but it's better than not doing it." Perhaps. But a lot of Democrats -- and candidates -- will be happier when the field is whittled to a more manageable handful in the coming month.
Richard S. Dunham
Gore for Dean. Who's for Hillary?
What's really behind Al Gore's embrace of Howard Dean? Check out BW political correspondent Richard S. Dunham's analysis, posted Dec. 9. Rick notes that part of Gore's message to Democratic party moderates is to "stop pining for Hillary Clinton." In the Nov. 24 issue of Newsweek, Howard Fineman scoped out the "Hillary scenario," in which Democrats turn to the Former First Lady to accept the nomination if none of the current candidates can lock up the nomination by May or June. And here's the case for Hillary's candidacy, laid out several weeks ago by yours truly, way before all the speculation ran wild.
O.K., so that's a fantasy. Back to reality: Gore's surprising endorsement of Dean now makes the race more likely a contest between Dean and Dick Gephardt, or perhaps Wesley Clark -- if the general can figure out his message and his audience (more on that later). But there's an old saying that "in politics, absurdity is not a handicap." Who would have thought that a pugnacious ex-governor of Vermont would be pulling away six weeks before a single caucus or primary vote has been counted? Can you say Governor Schwarzenegger?
General, This "Primary" Doesn't Count
What's wrong with this press release, just issued by the Clark campaign to try to take the edge off of Gore's endorsement of Dean. Clark has won the "Gore staff primary" with more than 20 of the former Veep's staffers now working for the general, the release from Clark's campaign central declares. "We know from 2000 that in a democracy it's the popular vote that counts," says Bill Buck, Clark's press secretary and Gore's former Floriday communications director.
Here's the list of ex-Gore staffers on Clark's payroll now, according to the campaign:
Ron Klain former chief of staff
Jose Villareal former national treasurer
Thurgood Marshall, Jr former director of legislative affairs
Mark Fabiani former director of communications
Chris Lehane former press secretary
Matt Bennett former trip director
Catherine Grunden former director of scheduling
Jamal Simmons former deputy director of communications
Jason Furman former senior policy adviser
Ian Alberg former domestic policy adviser
Rob McLarty former Tennessee State director for the PAC
Bill Buck former press secretary for Florida
Luis Vizcaino New Mexico press secretary
Jonathan Beeton former Kentucky press secretary
Shelly Loos former political staffer
Terrill McSweeney former press office staffer
Sunny Gettinger former associate director of press advance
Marisa Luzzatto former scheduler
Paul Neaville former advance staffer
Molly Buford former assistant to Chairman Daley
Rob Walker - former advance staffer
Bill Burke former staffer
General, the notion of a "staff primary" means nothing to most of America, and it's just funny to political insiders. Do you win a kewpie doll if you recognize three of these people? Extra credit if you know the difference between Bill Buck and Bill Burke? Better to hone a message that will give voters a real reason to cast their ballot for you.
Forget About Kerry's F-Word
Sometimes a political flap is just a flap -- and other times, it's a substitute for unmet expectations, disappointment, piling on, and failure. Witness the silly brouhaha over John Kerry's use of the f-word in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine to describe President George Bush's handling of post-war Iraq.
Conservatives were shocked, shocked! that a Massachusetts senator and mainstream Democratic Presidential candidate would use such profanity in public to say Bush has messed up. "John Kerry not only is haughty and French-looking, but he also swears like a sailor," wrote James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal's popular "Best of the Web Today" column.
Well, Kerry does carry himself like a Boston Brahmin. But French-looking? What's up with that? Anyway, White House Chief-of-Staff Andrew Card reached for the soap, going on a Sunday morning talk show to call for an apology from Kerry for having a potty-mouth.
Fat chance. What's really going on here: Card & Co. are preaching to about 10% of the American electorate that also happens to be a key component of GOP political base -- devoutly religious people who still find use of bad words in public offensive. The other 90% of America is watching The Sopranos, Angels in America, Fear Factor, and MTV -- where swearing is just talking, even when it's bleeped out.
And the press is making a big deal of this because many thought Kerry was going to win the nomination. When you make self-important pundits look wrong, you pay, senator. Besides, does anybody in America, including increasingly restive conservatives, not believe Bush's handling of Iraq since the invasion has been an abject failure? A mess is a mess, no matter what words you use.
Not for Political Junkies Only
If you haven't discovered Ciro Scotti's Not-So-Neutral Corner column yet, you should now. Week in and week out, BW Senior Editor Scotti lets you know what he really thinks. Take a look at his latest, on President Bush's surprise visit to Iraq on Thanksgiving.
You may or may not agree with him, but Ciro always speaks his mind, and with a refreshing pizzazz rare among mainstream political writers today.
And while you're at it, check out our Washington Watch column archive. We'll keep you up to date with new insights every week, from the four keys to President Bush's reelection to the long odds for a Democratic-controlled Senate next year.