In Thursday night’s debate broadcast on CNN, did Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards give primary voters any reason to reject the front-runner for the nomination, Sen. John Kerry?
Did Edwards create doubts about Kerry’s ability to oust President Bush from the White House?
Based on the phlegmatic reaction of Kerry and of the audience in Los Angeles, Edwards did not spark any sudden “oh no!” moment for rank-and-file Democrats that would cause them to say, "We’d better not nominate Kerry."
Voters in 10 states will get the opportunity next Tuesday to settle the question definitively in what will be the most delegate-rich day in the entire primary calendar, with 1,151 delegates at stake -- one-third of all those elected in the primaries and caucuses.
If ever Edwards needed a big audience and a persuasive performance, it was Thursday night.
He made a strategic choice to not attack Kerry’s credibility, integrity or rhetorical skills.
He did chide Kerry for voting for trade agreements with Chile, Singapore and the Caribbean basin countries, which Edwards himself had opposed.
He didn’t mention that the volume of trade taking place under those accords is dwarfed by U.S.-China trade, which was promoted by the China accord for which both men voted in 2000.
Relaxed and amiable
But Edwards did not appear like a man who was fighting against political extinction. Indeed, both he and Kerry appeared mostly relaxed and amiable throughout the 90-minute exercise.
It was quite a different event than memorable man-to-man Democratic confrontations of the past, for example in 19984 when Walter Mondale tangled with challenger Gary Hart, demanding to know “where's the beef” as he accused Hart of lacking a substantive agenda.
Thursday’s event also lacked the tension and suppressed anger of the unforgettable 1968 debate on the eve of the California primary between Democrats Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.
Judged as pure theater, the Edwards challenge failed to electrify the evening. He did not snare Kerry in a trap or cause him to melt down.
So unconcerned did Kerry seem that at times he allowed himself to sound patronizing toward his younger Senate colleague. On health insurance reform, Kerry said of Edwards at one point, “I think John has an interesting approach.”
As Edwards presented the problem to the viewing audience, it was not that Kerry could not defeat Bush, it was that Kerry had served too long in the Senate and had on occasion taken campaign contributions from people deemed to be representatives of special interests.
Culture of lobbyists
In a loose, non-indicting manner, Edwards associated Kerry with the Washington culture of lobbyists, who in his view had a malignant influence on legislation.
Edwards offered it as virtue that he has only served five years in Senate, not 19 years, as Kerry has. But neither man is an outsider, since the Senate is the ultimate insiders club.
The “outsider” label would be more appropriate to candidates such as Ross Perot, Jimmy Carter or even Franklin Roosevelt, all of whom really did live outside Washington, D.C., never served in Congress, and had spent the years before they ran for president doing executive jobs.
The real outsiders in the debate were Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
Sharpton pointed out that both Kerry and Edwards had voted for the Iraq war resolution and for the USA Patriot Act, the law that permits sharing of grand jury testimony with federal investigative agencies if it involves foreign intelligence and which also expands the attorney general’s power to jail foreigners suspected of espionage or terrorism.
“I don’t see how anyone that supports civil rights can support the Patriot Act,” Sharpton said, to a rousing round of audience applause. “The Patriot Act that you supported is J. Edgar Hoover’s dream, it is John Ashcroft dream.”
Kucinich added, “some of the differences here are stylistic” — an apparent allusion to the Edwards-vs.-Kerry contrast. “I’m offering some substantive change in this country. I’m the voice for getting out of Iraq … for getting out of NAFTA and the WTO.”
Kerry, who voted for NAFTA, reminded the audience that Edwards has been quoted in the New York Times as saying, “NAFTA is important — it is an important part of our global economy, an important part of our trade relations."”
For his part, Edwards said he would seek to renegotiate NAFTA, not withdraw from it as Kucinich would. Edwards, like Kerry, came across as a gradualist, a person who, due to his Senate service, knows that legislative change usually happens in increments.