Thursday, April 26, 2007

Debating tips for Democratic political junkies

No doubt you’ve all cleared your calendars in order to watch tonight’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, featuring all the ’08 aspirants on one stage, broadcast on MSNBC from the key primary state of South Carolina beginning at 7 p.m.

What do you mean, no?

Surely you can be convinced that such a debate might be important, even though it is being staged nine months ahead of the Democratic primary season, and even though at least five of the eight candidates will stagger out of New Hampshire next winter with the same prospects for victory as Sanjaya. Surely you can be convinced that the opportunity to watch Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel in action is more exciting than queuing up that new James Bond DVD.

What do you mean, you can’t?

All right. I’ll concede that these early debates sometimes have the shelf life of week-old bread. I’ve attended enough of them to know. The closest parallel to the event tonight was a Democratic debate staged in South Carolina on May 4, 2003, and when it was over, I wrote that the night’s biggest “winners” were…Joe Lieberman (because he effectively scolded Howard Dean and John Kerry), and Dick Gephardt (because he was able to tout a “big vision” health care plan). You may recall how well Lieberman and Gephardt eventually fared. And did I mention that valuable air time was awarded that night to a number of people (Bob Graham, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton, and of course Kucinich) who had no chance of winning whatsoever?

So perhaps tonight’s debate is not worth your attention. On the other hand, if you’re not yawning yet, here’s a tip sheet that might convince you to watch:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be standing next to each other, with the opportunity (under format rules) to address each other directly. She leads him narrowly in both the national Democratic polls and the South Carolina polls; she is also fighting him for the allegiance of African-American voters, and that’s particularly important in South Carolina, where roughly half the primary electorate is black. So, what will these candidates try to accomplish tonight? Will she play the Bill Card, and drop reminders of all the things that her husband did for the black community? Will Obama play the Iraq Card, by reminding viewers (presumably, liberal primary voters) that he opposed the war before it ever began, unlike the unnamed person who voted to authorize it on the Senate floor?

John Edwards had originally expected to be the not-Hillary candidate, until Obama came along. What will he do tonight to raise his profile? Will he tout his own health care plan (the most substantive thus far), as a way to paint Clinton as incrementally cautious and Obama as policy-lite? Will he go for a daring proposal that plays well in a soundbite (rumor: he’s going to demand the firing of Karl Rove) and titillates the liberal base? Will he try to outflank Clinton and Obama on the left, by demanding that Congress push for a troop pullout from Iraq, even if it means holding up the war money?

Will Bill Richardson try to cut through the clutter by reminding everybody that he’s the only (potentially) major candidate with executive experience – running the state of New Mexico, where he has nudged the economy upward while cutting taxes? Since he’s battling Edwards for the third rung on the ladder, will he try to argue that, unlike Edwards’ health care proposal (which would require a tax hike on the affluent), his own health plan could be financed out of the savings accrued by ending the Iraq war? Is he savvy enough not to wear his bolo tie in South Carolina?

Who’s going to make the best pitch on national security? Regardless of how badly President Bush has botched Iraq, no Democrat can be elected next year without persuading voters that he or she can keep Americans safe. Rudy Giuliani, in a speech the other day, argued that America will face another 9/11 if a Democrat wins in 2008; in essence, he said, “Elect a Republican or you die.” Which Democrat will speak to this point tonight, and refute it most effectively? Edwards has already released a statement saying that the GOP has already botched the war on terror and that Democrats would do better. Clinton might well say that she’s best qualified to handle a crisis because of her long experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

What does Chris Dodd or Joe Biden do to get on the radar screen? (Beats me.) Will they seek to raise themselves by trying to lower a rival? Earlier this week, Dodd delivered a speech that appeared to target Obama: “Hope alone is not going to restore America’s leadership. Like never before, I believe we need national leadership that’s ready to lead from Day One.” Will he try out that line again? And can Biden adhere to the 60-second response rule, given that he usually requires several minutes to finish a sentence?

What will the candidates say if they’re asked whether the Virginia Tech shootings warrant a renewed push for gun control? What will they say if they’re asked whether the Supreme Court was wrong last week to bar the practice of late-term abortions? Gun control and abortion used to be Democratic staples. But if these issues come up tonight, you’ll see them dance like Fred Astaire.

So doesn’t this debate seem like more fun than a Fred Astaire movie?

What do you mean, no?