updated 9/4/2003 11:29:31 AM ET 2003-09-04T15:29:31

A few thoughts from Thursday night’s debate among the Democratic presidential candidates:

InsertArt(2003309)1. Differences. Several candidates pointed out useful distinctions between themselves and others. Dennis Kucinich noted that he had opposed the Iraq war, whereas several of his opponents (he didn’t name them, so I will — John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman) had voted to authorize it. Lieberman said the United States should send more troops to Iraq; Kerry disagreed. Kucinich faulted Howard Dean for refusing to cut the military budget. Kucinich also said the United States should scrap NAFTA and the World Trade Organization; Dean and Kerry disagreed. Gephardt noted that he had opposed NAFTA and other trade agreements that in his view lacked labor and environmental standards, whereas most of his opponents had voted for them. Dean and Gephardt said they would repeal all of Bush’s tax cuts in order to fund health insurance, but Edwards opposed solving the health care problem “by raising taxes on working families,” and Lieberman agreed.

2. Iraq revisionism. Faster than roaches fleeing illumination, the Democratic Iraq hawks have disappeared. “I and others warned [Bush] not to rush to war,” said Kerry. Lieberman added, “I said last fall, and then again in February, a month before the war, ‘Mr. President, here’s what you have to do to get ready to secure post-Saddam Iraq.’ No planning was done by this administration.” Note the exactness of the dates Lieberman cites — a telltale sign of a carefully prepared alibi. Edwards was even more precise: “I said a year ago that it was crucial — almost a year ago — that it was crucial that in this effort we bring our friends and allies in, and that we have a clear plan for what would happen now. … This president had no plan.”

3. Prizes.Every Democratic debate has standard prizes that the contestants race to grab. Here are Thursday’s winners, according to my notes. (A transcript may correct me.) First candidate to dismiss Iraq as a drain on resources better spent at home: Edwards. First candidate to denounce John Ashcroft: Kerry (answering a question about imported shirts). First candidate to mention his collaboration with John McCain: Edwards.

4. Commander Dean. Dean was clearly focused on coming off as a plausible commander in chief. He referred explicitly to that duty, cited his support for the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the 2001 Afghan war, maintained a painfully serious expression throughout the debate, and showed off his foreign policy cramming by proposing to ask “our allies such as Egypt and Morocco” to contribute troops to Iraq. He succeeded in looking serious, to the point of constipation. I’m not sure that was a net gain. By the way, why does the former governor of Vermont speak better Spanish than the former governor of Texas?

5. Dean vs. me. The current conventional wisdom among Democrats is, if you can’t be Dean, the next best thing is to be Dean’s assailant. Thursday night, everybody got into the act. Kucinich scoffed that Dean’s balanced budgets were easy because “Vermont doesn’t have a military.” Even Graham, who agreed with Dean that the Iraq war was a bad idea, chose to emphasize that he and Dean opposed the war for different reasons. Lieberman hit Dean hardest, asserting that under Dean’s trade policies, “the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression.” Later, Lieberman criticized “Gov. Dean and others who would adopt so large a [health care] program that it would force an increase in middle-class taxes.” That critique applies more accurately to Gephardt. But attacking Gephardt doesn’t get you on the evening news.

6. More anti-Bush than thou.You can’t accuse Gephardt of subtlety. In case you missed the first time he called Bush “a miserable failure,” he repeated it four more times. Obviously the Gephardt campaign has decided that this is Dean’s magic medicine and that they want some of it. I think they’re right. But Gephardt is exactly the sort of politician who overdoses on a good idea because he thinks it’s a cure-all. Example: Gephardt’s fifth use of the “miserable failure” line was in defense of repealing all of Bush’s tax cuts, even the parts that went to the middle class. “Why would we want to keep anything of the Bush tax plan? It’s a miserable failure,” said Gephardt. Try to imagine a general election battle between that line and Bush’s line that Democrats will raise your taxes.

By the way, has anyone in the Gephardt campaign considered asking the candidate to put more than 30 seconds between his standard boast of having opposed Bill Clinton on free trade and his standard boast of having led the fight for Clinton’s economic plan? Might be a good idea.

7. The soldier card. It’s Kerry’s to play, and he played it well. The trick was doing it in different ways to keep it fresh. Kerry opened with a jab at Bush for “being flown to an aircraft carrier” and declaring “mission accomplished” when the fighting in Iraq was far from over. Then he invoked “the lesson of Vietnam” as he assessed Bush’s Iraq mistakes. Then he showed off his military knowledge by demanding that non-citizens who serve in the U.S. military automatically be made citizens-and by quoting the exact number, 37,000.

8. The Clinton touch. Talk about slick. As Edwards was about to be introduced, he turned his head toward the camera and was about to flash a big hi-y’all grin when the introducer paused to correct her pronunciation of “Kucinich.” No problem. Edwards aborted, reloaded, and rotated again as he was introduced, flashing the grin as easily as throwing a light switch. He worked his dad-in-the-mill bio into the debate, played Mr. Nice Guy by noting that all the Democrats had proposed health insurance programs, and invoked some of the strongest themes of the 1992 Clinton campaign — responsibility and middle-class tax cuts — without using Clinton’s name. He also delivered the best line of the night, joking that the only Spanish phrase Bush could muster about jobs was “Hasta la vista.” The line was a three-fer: a sop to Hispanic viewers, one of the few Spanish phrases understood by Anglos, and a timely allusion to Arnold Schwarzenegger.

9. The non-Clinton touch. Once again, Lieberman showed the best preparation and worst execution of the Democratic debaters. I cringed when he said of terrorists, “If we don’t get together and defeat them now, shame on us.” Shame? You mean, on top of getting killed? Then Lieberman followed Edwards’ “Hasta la vista” with a laborious and clumsily delivered Spanish sentence that was supposed to convey the same thing but didn’t. Then he provoked some dismay in the audience by warning of a “Dean depression,” a phrase so full of overkill that it seemed more likely to kill its author. It was almost the only thing in the debate that made Dean smile. And no wonder: He got more applause for answering the punch than Lieberman got for delivering it.

William Saletan is Slate’s chief political correspondent.

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