December 10, 2003,
It was perhaps a measure of the strangeness of last night's Democratic debate that Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the candidate who wants to withdraw from Iraq and create a Department of Peace, kicked Ted Koppel's ass.
The ABC News anchorman moderated the debate, held on the campus of the University of New Hampshire, and began the session like a teacher might begin a first-grade class: by asking the candidates to "raise your hand if you believe Governor Dean can beat George W. Bush."
To no one's surprise, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, fresh from winning the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore, raised his hand. But the other candidates declined.
So Koppel tried a bit of gotcha. "Tell me, Senator Kerry, why didn't you raise your hand?" he asked.
Koppel asked the same question to Rep. Dick Gephardt, who gave an equally earnest answer. And Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Even Al Sharpton took the question seriously, using it as an occasion to denounce Gore's "bossism."
Ditto for retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards. In fact, everyone took Koppel's question at face value until the rotation came to Kucinich.
At first the Ohio congressman conceded that, "I can't say I was really counting on" winning Gore's endorsement. Then he hit back. "To begin this kind of a forum with a question about an endorsement, no matter by whom, I think actually trivializes the issues that are before us," Kucinich said, before launching into a statement about Iraq and his plan to bring the troops home.
The crowd liked it. Koppel had asked an inside-the-Beltway question had in effect asked the candidates to play pundit and Kucinich had called him on it.
Later, Koppel came at Kucinich again. In a second round of questioning, the host of Nightline stayed firmly inside the Beltway, asking the last-place candidates Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley Braun why they stayed in the race. "Will there come a point when we can expect one or more of the three of you to drop out, or are you in this as sort of a vanity candidacy?" Koppel said.
Turning to Kucinich, Koppel said, "You're not doing terribly well with money; you're doing even worse in the polls. When do you pull out?"
"When I take the oath of office," Kucinich said. "When you're there to cover it."
Then Kucinich took another whack at Koppel's horse-race questions. "I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country," Kucinich told the crowd. With all the serious issues out there begging be discussed, "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls, and then we're talking about money." Well, that's not what this race is about, Kucinich said.
"I may be inconvenient for some of those in the media," Kucinich declared, "but, you know, I'm sorry about that." The crowd hooted and applauded, and the applause grew for several seconds.
Koppel's line of questioning was clearly unpopular, but he wouldn't back down. Next, he invited Kerry to play pundit. "What is it that Governor Dean has done right?" Koppel asked Kerry. "Whether or not people want to acknowledge it, he does have more money than anybody else in this campaign; he is doing better in the polls than any of the rest of you."
In what was perhaps an awful commentary on his political courage, Kerry apparently found himself emboldened by Kucinich's answers. "Well, Ted, I'll tell you, there's something to be learned from your question," Kerry said, "and if I were an impolite person, I'd tell you where you could take your polls."
It would be impossible to convince anyone who watched the debate that Kerry would have said that had not Kucinich led the way. At one point later in the debate, Kerry said that, "sometimes a president has to make tough decisions," but he didn't decide to challenge Koppel until after Kucinich had shown that it was safe. Take that, Ted!
In the midst of all the wrangling over polls, fundraising, and Koppel's questions, there was one display of actual political courage on the crowded stage. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, fresh from not winning the Gore endorsement, had the gumption to tell the Democratic party that it had, in essence, gone crazy by abandoning the Bill Clinton/New Democrat formula that in the 1990s allowed the party to elect and reelect a president for the first time since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
"This campaign for the Democratic nomination is fundamentally a referendum within our party about whether we're going to build on the Clinton transformation in our party in 1992," Lieberman said. That transformation, he continued, "reassured people we were strong on defense, we were fiscally responsible, we cared about values, we were interested in cutting taxes for the middle class and working with business to create jobs."
Now, Lieberman continued, Democrats have left that all behind. "Howard Dean and now Al Gore, I guess are on the wrong side of each of those issues," he concluded.
On Iraq, Lieberman was even stronger. "I supported the war against Saddam Hussein," he said. "This man is a homicidal dictator, killed hundreds of thousands of his people, invaded two of his neighbors, used chemical weapons, supported terrorism and suppressed the rights of his people. He was a danger to us, a ticking time bomb. I'm glad that he is gone."
Then Lieberman in what surely astonished Dean Democrats everywhere referred to the "axis of evil" of "Saddam loyalists and the terrorists working with them." If that axis is allowed to win, Lieberman said, "Iraq will be chaotic, the region will be chaotic, the terrorists will be emboldened."
On the other hand, Lieberman said, "We could turn this around, and when we do, we will provide stability, a modernizing quasi-democratic or democratic Iraq, stability in the region, and a defeat for the terrorists so they won't strike at us again."
George W. Bush couldn't have said it better.
Yes, Lieberman threw in the obligatory jabs at the president. But at other times he sounded like the president, and in a Democratic debate in 2003, that is a true profile in courage.
Lieberman's resolve stood in stark contrast to the performance of Dean, who was oddly flat throughout the debate. Perhaps it was fatigue; after all, Dean began his day at 8:30 a.m. with Gore in New York, then flew to Iowa for an appearance, and then flew to New Hampshire for the debate. Whatever the case, Dean's performance was one of the least impressive of his candidacy.
He blew a question about his recent reference to the "theory" that the Saudis had warned President Bush ahead of time about the September 11 terrorist attacks. Defending himself, Dean said that he made the statement because, "I was asked on Fox 'Fair and Balanced' News that I was asked why I thought the president was withholding information, I think it was, or 9/11 or something like that." In fact, Dean brought the topic up in a Washington radio interview and discussed the issue on Fox only when asked about his statements. And in no venue has he actually explained why he would suggest and then deny that he believed that Bush knew beforehand.
Dean also bobbled a question about whether it would ever be proper for a president to lie to the American people. "Under what circumstances?" Dean asked, appearing not to grasp the question. "I can't think of any circumstances," he said, before thinking a bit more and adding, "with the possible exception of some sort of national-security matter that would if some piece of information were put out that would endanger American lives or some circumstance under which peoples' lives would be in danger or something of that sort."
Finally, Dean mangled the answer to a question on whether a full contingent of U.S. troops should remain in Iraq. By the end of his answer, it was not at all clear what he had intended to say, and at one point, he even referred to appointing "a governing council for Vermont" when he meant to say Iraq. All in all, it was not a winning performance.
Nor was anyone else's, with the exception of Lieberman and Kucinich. And, of course at least in his own estimation Koppel, who at the end seemed immensely pleased with his work. "If I may make the observation, what you need every once in a while is someone up here who ticks you off a little bit," he told the candidates at the end. "You're much better when you're angry."
To which Sharpton responded: "Ted, we appreciate you. And even though you're lower in the polls, you don't have the ratings of Saturday Night Live, I showed up anyway."
"You're right, I don't" Koppel said. "Goodnight."