By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/26/2003 4:32:54 AM ET 2003-09-26T08:32:54

Retired Army four-star Gen. Wesley Clark showed up for Thursday’s two-hour televised debate on CNBC, but could anyone recall anything thought-provoking he had said — or was that beside the point? Clark undoubtedly proved that he is well within the mainstream of Democratic rhetoric — and perhaps that was his intent, to reassure party activists that he’d be a solid consensus candidate.

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Clark, who has never before run for elective office, was no worse, but no better at articulating economic policy ideas than the nine other contenders who shared the stage with him.

Neither flashy nor dramatic in his performance Thursday, Clark did not embarrass himself, nor did he give the viewers a compelling reason to run right out and work for him instead some other Democratic contender.

ESTABLISHING BONA FIDES

Clark opened his debut by stating his bona fides as a Democrat who’d be acceptable to all interest groups within the party.

Clark assured Democrats that he was pro-choice, pro-affirmative action, pro-environment and perfectly capable of unleashing Bush-bashing rhetorical volleys as harsh as those of the other Democratic contenders.

Bush “recklessly cut taxes” and “recklessly took us into war against Iraq,” Clark declared as the debate started.

And later in the debate Clark drew a round of applause when he said it is fine for individuals to invest in the stock market “but not as a substitute for insuring the solvency of Social Security. We’re going to get Social Security right first, then we’re going to put in place the measures so that individuals can save and invest on top of Social Security.”

Bruce Lindsey, the former aide to President Bill Clinton who is now advising Clark, told reporters after the debate that the ex-general emerged from it as a contender who could stand unscathed above the increasingly bitter cycle of attack and counter-attack among former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry.

“He didn’t go after his opponents. ... The American public does not want bickering, they want answers,” Lindsey told reporters.

And while Clark did not attack any of his Democratic rivals, neither did any attack him. They seemed to be waiting either for Clark to stumble into a gaffe or for the initial excitement of his candidacy to fade.

Asked after the two-hour event whether Clark had said anything during the debate he’d disagreed with, Gephardt said, “I don’t know. I’d have to look back on what was said and try to give you a better answer.”

Clark’s ideas didn’t stand out from the crowd, but Lindsey seemed to argue that that did not matter much at this point.

“Every Democrat has a jobs program, every Democrat knows that this administration is doing things wrong, but the differences among the contenders are in leadership — can you get it done? — and he has shown in his 34 years in the military that he is a leader.”

“The issues are all the same,” Lindsey said. “We need more jobs, we need more economic development, we need more trade — all of those are Democratic issues, but he has a positive program and the leadership ability to get it done. A lot of these things everybody knows the answers.”

Only Clark, he said, had demonstrated “the leadership that we need to get it done.”

Clark did not discuss in any detail his plan to roll back the portion of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that benefit people above $200,000 in income and to use the money instead for job-creation programs such as hiring more Coast Guard personnel and investing in construction projects to protect harbors and bridges from terrorist attacks.

It was a missed opportunity, but Lindsey argued that the debate format kept Clark boxed in.

Clark did say at one point in answer to a question about the budget that “we need to put all the government spending programs on the table including the military.”

He appeared to be on the brink of saying something newsworthy — that as president he might try to cut three costliest items in the federal budget: Social Security, Medicare and the military. But he did not spell out his position.

ATTACKING DEAN

While keeping an eye on the Clark phenomenon, Gephardt and Kerry used much of their energy to pummel Dean, who is the front-runner in polls in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses Jan. 19, and in New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 27.

Kerry assailed Dean for proposing to repeal the tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003.

The Massachusetts senator argued that some of those tax cuts benefit middle-class voters. “We Democrats fought hard to put those tax cuts in place,” Kerry told CNBC’s Ron Insana. “The ten-percent bracket wasn’t George Bush’s ideas; it was our idea. It was in keeping with the spirit of our party to try to help the average American get ahead in a country where increasingly average Americans are getting stomped on,” he argued.

“I think Gov. Dean is absolutely wrong,” Kerry sternly declared.

Kerry said cutting the budget deficit was important, but “we don’t have to do it on the backs of the middle class.”

Dean fired back at Kerry, “This is exactly why the budget is so far out of balance. Washington politicians promising people everything, ‘You can have tax cuts, you can have insurance, you can have special education.’”

Dean urged Kerry to “tell the truth: We cannot afford all the tax cuts, the health insurance and balancing the budget.”

DEAN AND NEWT GINGRICH

Later in the debate, Gephardt lashed out at Dean for saying in 1993 that Medicare was “one of the worst federal programs ever.” (Dean has said Medicare is one of the worst-administered federal programs.)

“At our darkest hour, when I was leading the fight against (former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich ... Howard, you were agreeing with the very plan which Newt Gingrich wanted to pass, which was a $270 billion cut in Medicare. You’ve been saying for many months you’re the head of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, I think you’re just winging it.”

An angry Dean fumed, “ Nobody up here (on stage) deserves to be compared with Newt Gingrich. ... I’ve done more for health insurance in this country, Dick Gephardt, frankly than you ever have.”

A visibly pleased Gephardt campaign chief of staff Steve Elmendorf said after the debate that Dean “keeps trying to fuzz it up with Gingrich. The issue isn’t Gingrich. The issue is he supported the Republican $270 billion cut in Medicare.”

Dean’s current position is clear: He said last week in New Hampshire he flatly opposed one way of cutting the program’s growth rate, means-testing, requiring wealthier people to pay more for their coverage under the program. With means-testing Dean said, “you will save a few dollars, … but unfortunately you will then label Medicare a poor person’s program” and make it “vulnerable to every right-wing crackpot.”

But the Gephardt strategy is to suggest that Dean was once — and perhaps still is — an ally of the man Democrats saw as the ultimate “right-wing crackpot,” Newt Gingrich.

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