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Thursday, January 29, 2004

South Carolina Debate Impressions

The transcript from tonight's Democratic presidential debate in Greenville, SC, has a few goodies.

My favorite had to be Tom Brokaw's stupid use of the phrase "nation of Islam" to describe the Middle East when the Nation of Islam is also a black Muslims group in the US that is now providing security to Michael Jackson, among other things. Brokaw repeated it a few times before Al Sharpton finally called him on it:

BROKAW: Reverend Sharpton, there is a great war going on in the world between the West and the Nation of Islam. And the United States, at the moment, is losing the war for hearts and minds. Everyone agrees on that, whatever their political position happens to be.

Specifically, what should the United States be doing in terms of programs? And how much money should it commit to find common ground between this country and the democratic ideals that we all embrace and the Nation of Islam?

SHARPTON: Well, first of all, I assume when you say "the Nation of Islam" you're talking about Islamic nations, because there is a Nation of Islam in the United States that has nothing to do what you're talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

So I'm just asking for clarity.

(APPLAUSE)

BROKAW: I'm talking about Islamic nations.

SHARPTON: You're talking about Islamic -- first of all, I think...

BROKAW: No, no, I'm talking about the Islamic movement around the world, because it really does transcend nations in many ways.

If you're going to be the questioner at these things, shouldn't you at least plan out your questions carefully ahead of time, with multiple people checking them to avoid embarrassing gaffes like this one? Unfortunately, blowhards like Brokaw and other bigshot anchors think they can just get up on stage and run their mouths.

While I'm bashing Brokaw, I'll add that he started off with the horse-race questions and asked some others that seemed to be plants from the White House. Here are the first questions of the night:

How can you come South, given what you said about the Democrats making a mistake in spending too much time worry about the South...

KERRY: I never said that.

BROKAW: ... and expect to do well here.

KERRY: I never said Democrats made a mistake. I never said that all. ...

[BROKAW]:Senator Edwards, you've got a lot at stake here. Is this a do- or-die race for you? ...

Governor Dean, you have made a big change in your campaign this week. You fired the man who brought you to this dance.

DEAN: No, I didn't.

BROKAW: You brought in somebody from Washington D.C. who was in the Clinton White House, promised he wouldn't go to work as a lobbyist, then immediately went to work as a lobbyist. He is a quintessential Washington insider, admired by a lot of people in the party. But doesn't that change the whole DNA of the Howard Dean campaign?

DEAN: Well, first of all, I didn't fire anybody this week. We did bring in Roy Neel, and I think he is going to do a great job, former President Clinton's deputy chief of staff, Al Gore's chief of staff.

BROKAW: Now a telecommunications lobbyist.

DEAN: Who never lobbied and kept faith with his ethics pledge, I might add. ...

BROKAW: I want to get out of the horse-race business and into the substance of this campaign in just a moment.

But let me ask you, General Clark, and Senator Lieberman, and Congressman Kucinich, and Reverend Sharpton, the party chairman Terry McAuliffe says if one of you guys doesn't win one of these primaries in the next week, let's make it the next two weeks, in which there are a lot of primaries, you ought to think about getting out of the race.

If any of you don't come in first in any of these many primaries coming up in the next two weeks, will you get out of the race?

To review, the debate began with one question to Kerry implying he's disrespecting the South by not working to win there, a question to Edwards about how he needs to win South Carolina, a question to Dean that serves to tell viewers his campaign is in disarray (asking about what happened with Trippi is fine, but the insistence on labeling Neel as a scummy lobbyist was overzealous), and the first question of the debate the four others get is about when they'll get out of the race. I was groaning at this point, fearing that Brokaw had attended the Ted Koppel school of debate questioning.

Then there's the pro-Bush stuff:

BROKAW: Senator Kerry, Governor Dean has made a very serious charge against the vice president, saying that he went to the CIA. We know that he did that, but do you believe that he berated middle-level people at the intelligence agency to, in effect, shape the intelligence that he wanted?

This is beside the point. Whether there was overt pressure or not, the case for war was made on faulty info. As in the BBC story, the media are obscuring this basic fact by focusing instead on specific allegations of wrongdoing, ignoring the more general wrong.

BROKAW: General Clark, your friend, Congressman Kucinich, would pull the United States troops out of Iraq right away and go to the U.N. and say, "You go in and take over the peacekeeping there."

Would you tell him about what happened when we had U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia?

KUCINICH: Tom, you've mischaracterized my position.

Kucinich then proceeded to tell Brokaw what his actual position on Iraq is, a plan more nuanced than what Brokaw gave him credit for (it's still a bad plan, just not lacking in detail). Why did Brokaw think he could use a question to Clark about Bosnia to bash Kucinich's Iraq plan? Obviously Kucinich, who isn't shy to speak up, was going to do so here. Clark doesn't want to be put in a position to trash someone else either. Why not give Kucinich's Iraq plan a fair hearing? As it turns out, Brokaw was forced to do that, though not by his design. Clark wisely just answered with what he wants to do in Iraq now. Clark himself would be victim to an unfair query from Brokaw a few minutes later:

BROKAW: General Clark, you've been quite outspoken in blaming the Bush administration for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. You better...

CLARK: No, no, no, Tom, no, I didn't blame the Bush administration for the attacks. We know who did the attacks. It was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida. But what I have said is that the president did not do all he could have done to have prevented that attack.

The phrasing Brokaw used intentionally tries to make Clark's position sound more extreme and anti-Bush than it is. Playing politics through the willful misrepresentation of this issue is not an honorable way to run a serious debate.

BROKAW: Senator Lieberman, the president said the other night in the State of the Union address, "I don't need a permission slip from the United Nations to defend the natural security interests of this country."

Isn't that a legitimate position for a president of the United States?

Why the leading question? Why not ask, "The president received a lot of attention for saying in last week's State of the Union that we don't need a permission slip to defend the security of our country. Do you agree with the president on this point, and why or why not?" You will get exactly the same answer from the candidate, perhaps subtracting only the need for the start of the answer to be used up clarifying the issue and the Democrat's position on it. And you won't be giving the audience the false impression that the president is right and the Democrats are up to something.

In short, this was a bad performance by Brokaw. Sure, I've seen worse, but this is far from what I see as an ideal way to run a debate.

On the substantive end, the important stuff concerned Kerry primarily, since he's the front runner. This exchange with Brokaw will be an important one because it will probably become the seed of Republican attacks:

BROKAW: Where has the exaggeration been in the threat on terrorism?

KERRY: Well, 45 minutes deployment of weapons of mass destruction, number one.

Aerial vehicles to be able to deliver materials of mass destruction, number two.

I mean, I -- nuclear weapons, number three.

I could run a long list of clear misleading, clear exaggeration. The linkage to Al Qaida, number four.

That said, they are really misleading all of America, Tom, in a profound way. The war on terror is less -- it is occasionally military, and it will be, and it will continue to be for a long time. And we will need the best-trained and the most well-equipped and the most capable military, such as we have today.

But it's primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world -- the very thing this administration is worst at. And most importantly, the war on terror is also an engagement in the Middle East economically, socially, culturally, in a way that we haven't embraced, because otherwise we're inviting a clash of civilizations.

The part about seeing the struggle against terrorism as a challenge to law enforcement is a position that Bush explicitly has criticized, notably in his State of the Union last week. The White House will twist it as a position that is not tough enough to protect America adequately. The substance of the answer notwithstanding, the response from Kerry can also be distorted by claiming Kerry is now on record as saying that the threat from terrorism has been exaggerated. How do you make this into an attack? John Edwards showed us how when he next had a chance to speak:

Can I just go back a moment ago--to a question you asked just a moment ago? You asked, I believe, Senator Kerry earlier whether there's an exaggeration of the threat of the war on terrorism.

It's just hard for me to see how you can say there's an exaggeration when thousands of people lost their lives on September the 11th.

Of course, 9/11 had nothing to do with the response Kerry gave--he was discussing the intelligence used to push the Iraq war. This was a stunningly cynical attack coming from Edwards, who has cultivated the image of "Mr. Friendly!" during the recent weeks. Now he's in South Carolina, though, a state he must win, so he's willing to do whatever it takes, apparently. Edwards' panderful response to a question about trade and manufacturing jobs was one of the low points of the debate, I thought:

EDWARDS: No, it's not the truth. We can have a real impact on the loss of jobs. We can do something to bring jobs back to replace the jobs that we've lost.

But we can't stop it entirely. What John just said about that's exactly right.

But I want to say that this personal to me.

You know, 40 miles from here, when I was born 50 years ago, my parents brought me home to a mill village, to a textile mill village. I have seen this my entire life growing up.

I've seen mills close, I've seen what it does to communities, I've seen what it does to families.

And all this talk among politicians in Washington about, "We're going to get you job retraining program, we're going to make sure that we give you the transportation to get to a new job," say that to a 50- or 55-year-old man who's been supporting his family his entire life working in a mill.

I think the truth of the matter is, we need to start by recognizing the pain. And not just the economic pain--the pain that these families are in.

I mean, we have to fight hard to protect our jobs better for some of the reasons others have already talked about. We need to close loopholes in our tax code to give breaks to companies that are leaving, give tax breaks to American companies that will keep jobs here.

Edwards adds nothing to the discussion on this topic. He decries "all this talk among politicians in Washington" only to offer... more talk. He feels your pain, Mr. and Mrs. unemployed mill worker! Like no one else realizes that losing jobs and having plants close is a painful thing--thanks for the insight, John. You don't have to have been born in a mill town to know that it sucks. The question remains, what will you do about it? On this issue, Edwards just piggy-backs on the proposals others had thrown out in previous responses, sounding just like another "politician in Washington" again. I hope his profound understanding of the pain people feel somehow makes those programs more effective. For some reason, I have a feeling that's not the case.

The only other interesting clash of the night came when Dean attacked Kerry over healthcare; I've done a lot of good things with regard to healthcare in Vermont, he said, and Kerry's sponsored a bunch of health bills that have failed in Congress. Kerry was ready for the attack, though, rattling off a prepared list of his accomplishments in the healthcare field.

As has been the case with most of the previous debates, the front runner wasn't hurt and so he emerges as the winner of the evening by default. Since the others can't seem to draw any blood from Kerry directly, they had better hope Kerry makes some sort of mistake on his own that brings his way a lot of negative stories in the press. That's what brought down Dean, and it can happen to Kerry too, though I have a feeling that Kerry's greater care with his words and the tight schedule from here on in make that scenario less likely. Maybe the botox rumors will bring him down? At this stage, that's what the other Dems need to be hoping.