The Candidates Followed Dean in the January 4th Debate

OK, I’ve been thinking about the degree to which the Democratic presidential candidates have shaped their positions in reaction to Dean. I remember thinking quite clearly during the Jan. 4th, 2004 debate that this was so. I Googled on a transcript of the debate and found one at CNN. The rest of this post will be an examination of how the other candidates’ responses reflect the way in which Dean’s positions set the terms of the debate on one subject.

Dean’s Position: The capture of Saddam has not made America safer.

In the very first question, which was about the capture of Saddam, Edwards responded:

Well, the truth is that Saddam’s capture and the trial of Saddam Hussein, which the entire world will be able to see when it takes place, is going to reveal the atrocities that he’s been engaged in and some of the incredible conduct that’s occurred in Iraq during the time of his reign.

The reality of protecting the American people is, there’s a still great deal of work to be done. I mean, the president claims that he’s keeping people safe in this country.

He then went on to outline the ways in which the country is vulnerable because the “homeland” (Sieg, Heil!) is not really being protected. The unspoken meaning of his response was: we are not safer at home simply because Saddam has been capture. Edwards didn’t say it as bluntly as Howard Dean, but that was the gist of his answer to the question.

The question in a slightly reworded form was then put to Carol Moseley-Braun, who didn’t mince words, but said about Saddam’s capture “I’ve always maintained it had nothing to do with — or little to do with keeping the American people safe.” She then went on to outline all the things we should have been doing instead (mostly pursuing Al Quaeda). Moseley-Braun was presenting Dean’s argument for why America is not really safer.

Kerry was next asked a different question, but he took the time to point out that Saddam was “way down the list, with respect to the targets, even on the Pentagon’s own list of targets.” This is not an endorsement of Dean’s assessment of the safety of America, but it goes along with Dean’s main point, that it was the wrong war. And this from someone who voted for it.

A few questions later, Isreal is the subject of inquiry for Lieberman, and, because Howard Dean’s positions were controlling the agenda, Lieberman felt obligated to clearly distance himself from Dean’s position before answering the actual question asked of him:

First, let me say that the capture of — overthrow and then capture of Saddam Hussein has made America safer and made the world safer. It has not ended all of our problems or all the threats to our security, but a president has to deal with more than one threat at a time.

Is it just me, or is that an incredibly weak argument? Like Kerry’s remarks above, it still takes Dean’s basic premise, that Saddam’s capture is minor in the bigger picture, while disavowing the blunt admission that it’s is so minor as to not really change anything in regard to the safety of the US itself. All the candidates agree that Saddam’s capture is not all that important in the larger scheme of things — the only question is whether it is insignificant or has no significance whatsoever.

Later, Dean is given the opportunity to close the circle and bring home the bacon, and he does it, when asked about his position that Saddam could have been captured 6 months earlier than he was:

I believe that, had Saddam been captured earlier, we might have been able to spend more time looking for Osama bin Laden, which is the real problem.

Note Senator Lieberman said that we were safer now that Saddam has been caught; I beg to differ. Since Saddam Hussein has been caught — who’s a dreadful person. I’m delighted to see him behind bars, and I hope he gets what he deserves.

But the fact is, since Saddam Hussein has been caught, we’ve lost 23 additional troops; we now have, for the first time, American fighter jets escorting commercial airliners through American airspace.

What we should have done is spent some of the $160 billion that we have in Iraq and all the effort when we went to go after Saddam, who was never an imminent threat to the United States, what we should have done is followed up and tried to get Osama bin Laden and spent that money and all those lives trying to protect America from terrorism, which is the true enemy of the United States.

It gets better and better — the followup question was “What about something that Senator Lieberman also said, and that was that, if we had followed your ideas toward Saddam Hussein, he’d still be in power?” to which Dean answered:

I actually don’t believe that, because I think, given the time that’s elapsed, we could have done the proper thing, which George Bush’s father did, and put together a coalition to go after somebody who was a regional threat but not a threat to the United States.

Our resources belong in fighting al Qaeda. Al Qaeda has got us in a position where we’re now worried because we’re at level orange. We need a concentrated attack on al Qaeda and on Osama bin Laden. Saddam Hussein has been a distraction.

Lieberman is offered a rebuttal and produces the biggest howler of the debate, a horrendously mistaken analogy to Hitler and Stalin (too bad Godwin’s Law can’t be invoked to eject candidates from debates):

I want to respond to Howard Dean’s criticism of my statement that we’re safer with Saddam Hussein gone. You know what? We had good faith differences on the war against Saddam. But I don’t know how anybody could say that we’re not safer with a homicidal maniac, a brutal dictator, an enemy of the United States, a supporter of terrorism, a murderer of hundreds of thousands of his own people in prison instead of in power.

And to change the subject as Howard does and to say that we haven’t obliterated all terrorism with Saddam in prison is a little bit like saying somehow that we weren’t safer after the Second World War after we defeated Nazism and Hitler because Stalin and the communists were still in power.

Now if that isn’t awful, I don’t know what is.

The key point here is that all of the candidates dance around the central point of Dean’s position, that the Iraqi war was a distraction from the real task of going after Al Quaeda, the the Bush administration’s priorities were simply wrong, and have not done anything significant to address the real, crucial problem facing the US in regard to safety from attack at home.

On the subject of NAFTA, Dean also had the middle ground, the position that nearly all of his opponents (except Gephardt, Kucinich and Sharpton, so we’re talking about the candidates who remain viable after Iowa). Dean’s position was that free trade as a principle is a good thing, but that free trade without a truly level playing field for all the nations involved is going to put the US at a disadvantage. Dean wants free trade agreements altered to bring up labor standards in the poorer nations to those of the richer nations. Why? No, it’s not to make us more competitive — it’s in order to improve the working environment for the people in the other countries, because that will bring the greatest good to the greatest number.

This is the position that all the non-protectionist candidates were dancing around. And it addresses the key issue of what the protectionist candidates feel is wrong with NAFTA and the WTO.

So, here we have Dean, the so-called liberal, occupying the centrist position.

On the subject of the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, Dean is again in the center. Even Moseley-Braun, who is pretty reliably liberal, agrees that we can’t just irresponsibly pull out of a nation that would not have been destroyed if we hadn’t unilaterally acted against it. Indeed, Dean’s position is actually more responsible than that of the lawmakers who voted against the $87 billion in funding for the rebuilding of Iraq (the same lawmakers who voted for the war in the first place).

On taxes, Dean has a problem — he calls (like Kucinich) for the rollback of the entire Bush tax cut, including the cuts for the middle class (which were actually there because of Democratic initiatives). His reasoning is not too difficult to understand: looking at the tax code without also evaluating the services the government provides does not give a true picture of the net effect of Bush administration policies on the middle class. Dean argues that when you look at the global picture, Bush’s tax cuts, even the middle class part, have served to vastly increase the overall expenses of middle class taxpayers. Dean’s problem here is that he doesn’t explain it very well — he gets the details but fails to close the deal.

Dean seems to be the only candidate that is looking at the tax cut issue as part of a global issue, of what government can do for the people, and which demographic groups get the most benefit from the government. He would work to restore benefits that the Bush administration has cut to finance its tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s not clear the extent to which the other candidates would do this (though Edwards’ riff on the transfer of the burden of government from capital to labor is basically a restatement of Dean’s core position), but only Dean is talking about it as intimately tied up with the Bush tax policy.

It just seems to me that, over and over again, it’s the Dean positions that animate the discussion and that everyone else’s policies are reactive to his positions, which are almost always squarely in the center of the range of positions staked out. The media pundits rate the horse race and don’t seem to really look at where things stand on the positions, or the degree to which one candidate has energized the entire field.