I didn’t catch the debate last night but it was apparently fairly entertaining. NYT gives its story the rather breathless headline, “Democrats’ First Presidential Debate Shows Party Fissures,” as if all the candidates are supposed to agree with one another:

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts squabbled so intensely over their differences on the war in Iraq and on each other’s credentials that the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York finally stepped in and urged an end to disputes that he said could hurt the Democrats in their attempt to win the White House.

“Republicans are watching,” Mr. Sharpton said, adding that “we should not have the bottom line tonight be that George Bush won because we were taking cheap shots at one another.”

Senator Bob Graham of Florida said: “We’re not fighting each other. We’re trying to select one of us to be the opponent of George Bush.”

I can’t recall the last time all the candidates in a seriously contested primary agreed with one another on all the major issues.

Dick Gephardt seems to be distinguishing himself from the field with his health care proposal, about which he makes a plausible argument:

A proposal by Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri to abolish President Bush’s tax cuts and use the money to provide subsidies to business to cover health care insurance was repeatedly attacked by his opponents, in a sign of concern that Mr. Gephardt might have taken the lead on what could be a central issue in the primary.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina described the Gephardt plan as a giveaway that “takes money directly out of the pockets of working people, and I know it gives it to corporations.” Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut called Mr. Gephardt’s proposal a “big-spending Democratic idea of the past,” suggesting that it could allow Republicans once again to portray Democrats as a party of big government.

Mr. Gephardt, who appeared to enjoy the attention, even if it came in the form of criticism, defended his health care plan and criticized his opponents for supporting an end to only some of Mr. Bush’s taxes.

“We can’t come along and say, `Well, I’ll keep half the Bush tax cut,’ or `I’ll keep three quarters of the Bush tax cut,’ ” Mr. Gephardt said. “If you like George Bush’s tax cuts, stick with him, vote for him. But if you want to finally solve this problem that’s bedeviled our people for a hundred years, let’s get it done.”

While I don’t support his plan, I agree with his reasoning: The Democrats can only win back the White House if there is a national calamity that undermines Bush’s image as a strong leader, whether another massive terrorist attack or an absolute collapse of the economy, or by proposing a grand alternative vision of how the country should be governed. While Bill Clinton managed to get elected, twice, by running as a Republican Lite, I can’t think of another candidate who defeated an incumbent on the platform of “Me too, but not quite so much.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. jen says:

    I don’t remember it as Clinton running as Republican-lite – his ideas were pretty liberal. He became Republican-lite after the 1994 Congressional elections and the Contract for America. Maybe I have a faulty memory on that.

    The Gephardt health plan is an interesting idea if you’re one who believes the government has the responsibility. I’d rather see a subsidy to businesses to reduce the insurance costs (which might help lower premiums paid by employees, although I doubt it) than socialized health care. Really, I hate the idea of both, but the lesser of two evils…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Clinton ran as a “New Democrat” in 1992. He didn’t talk about socialized medicine, was going to end welfare as we knew it, and have a strong defense. About the only thing he was openly liberal on during that campaign was gays in the military, and he didn’t exactly emphasize that issue. He got more liberal once he was inaugurated but it proved disastrous and he moved back to the right.