July 24, 2007
Novel Debate Format, but Same Old Candidates
By PATRICK HEALY and JEFF ZELENY
The Democratic presidential debate last night was unlike any that had come before: two hours of questions conveyed on homemade videos from Americans who were by turns tough talking and highly emotional, mixing pathos and bathos with the simply offbeat.
One man asked about gun rights while brandishing an assault weapon, calling it his baby. Parents mourned their children, lost to war.
And some of the candidates responded in kind, imbuing their language with an immediacy that matched the tenor of the questions. Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio castigated his fellow Democrats for not ending the war in Iraq, and Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware opened up about his wife and daughter, who are dead.
Yet while there was a new format for the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and the video-sharing Web site YouTube, the change went only so far: Candidates frequently lapsed into their talking points, and there was little actual debate among them.
Much of the debate was taken up with questions on social and domestic issues, including race, education and gay rights. At one point the candidates were asked if they would agree to be paid only the national minimum wage if elected president and at another whether they had arrived for the debate, in Charleston, S.C., on private jets.
The questions elicited points of difference on a broad range of issues, from whether the United States should build more nuclear power plants to whether it would be good policy — or even feasible — to withdraw American troops from Iraq within six months.
Perhaps the sharpest point of difference came when the candidates were asked if, during their first year as president, they would be willing to meet without preconditions with the presidents and dictators of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.
“I would,” said Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. “And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration, is ridiculous.”
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has also criticized the Bush administration for “not talking to our enemies,” took a different tack, pledging robust diplomacy but refusing to make that promise of leader-to-leader talks.
“I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes — I don’t want to make a situation even worse,” Mrs. Clinton said. Former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, asked if he would meet Kim Jong Il of North Korea, replied: “Yes, and I think actually Senator Clinton’s right, though. Before that meeting takes place, we need to do the work, the diplomacy, to make sure that that meeting’s not going to be used for propaganda purposes.”
At another point, Mrs. Clinton, asked whether she considered herself a liberal, distanced herself from the word. She said she preferred the term “progressive,” and when the CNN moderator, Anderson Cooper, asked if she would not use the word liberal, she indicated wordlessly that she would not.
With Mrs. Clinton holding a lead over the rest of the Democratic field in most national polls, the other candidates looked for opportunities to challenge her.
Mr. Edwards described himself as the candidate who could deliver “bold change” and took an apparent swipe at Mrs. Clinton by mentioning a political strategy that was associated with her husband’s presidency and was unpopular with many left-leaning Democrats.
“Do you believe that compromise, triangulation, will bring about big change?” Mr. Edwards asked. “I don’t.”
Mr. Obama also appeared to take took a gentle jab at Mrs. Clinton over Iraq, saying it was “terrific” that she was pressing the Pentagon for plans on an Iraq troop withdrawal yet adding, “The time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in.” Mrs. Clinton voted to authorize the war in 2002.
Matters of race and sex also elicited illuminating responses. Mr. Edwards jumped into a question about whether Mr. Obama was “authentically black enough” or Mrs. Clinton was sufficiently feminine.
“Anybody who’s considering not voting for Senator Obama because he’s black or for Senator Clinton because she’s a woman, I don’t want their vote” said Mr. Edwards.
Some questions put the candidates on the spot in a personal way, as when they had to say whether they sent their children to public or private schools.
A lesbian couple asked if the candidates would “allow us to be married” and then a minister challenged Mr. Edwards for invoking his religion in explaining his opposition to such marriages.
Mr. Edwards said he felt “enormous personal conflict” over gay marriage; Mr. Cooper pressed again, and Mr. Edwards said it would be “wrong” to use his own faith to impose social policy on other people.
The candidates were also asked whether they sympathized enough with the plight of the American worker that they would work in the White House ($400,000 a year) for minimum wage ($5.85 an hour). Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut said no, he would not, given that he had two young daughters to send to school.
Mr. Edwards? “Yes.” Mrs. Clinton? “Sure.” Mr. Obama? Yes, adding: “We can afford to work for the minimum wage because most folks on this stage have a lot of money.”
“I don’t,” Mr. Dodd replied.
“You’re doing all right, Chris,” Mr. Obama said, though he added, “You don’t have Mitt Romney money.”
Mr. Biden jumped in: “I don’t have Barack Obama money either.”
Patrick Healy reported from New York, and Jeff Zeleny from Charleston, S.C.