Nothing much was happening in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate Sunday night, until Rep. Dennis Kucinich fired the rhetorical equivalent of a cruise missile across the bow of his party. The leading contenders may have pretended not to hear the shot, but don’t be fooled. They heard it, all right. They just hope you didn’t.
For the viewer at home, trying to see past CNN’s elaborate and unwieldy staging of the forum was like — what was it like? It was like trying to see photographs under plexiglas in a badly-lit gallery, dodging one’s own reflection — or in this case, Wolf Blitzer’s — between episodes of glare and distortion.
The set itself resembled a scene from “The Matrix”. Was it designed by FEMA? The backdrop had the kind of shimmering fake-pointillism associated with convention center wallpaper. The eight candidates appeared to blend into it at times, and their podiums seemed actually to be turned backwards.
Whatever happened to “keep it simple”?
That Blitzer allotted himself considerably more microphone time than he gave most of the candidates was predictable. But who could have predicted the network’s bizarre decision to actually interrupt the debate to rearrange the set, replacing the lecterns with clusters of red airport waiting room chairs, separated here and there by little magazine tables?
What was predictable was that in both arrangements, the two candidates least likely to win the nomination were stationed at the “fringes.”
After the set change, CNN proceeded to fill time by interviewing members of the audience, before encouraging them to lob generic softballs toward the stage. It made one grateful for the occasional dead microphone.
As for the candidates, John Edwards poked from third place in the polls at Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama early on, without getting much of a rise. Sen. Joe Biden rarely deviated from an everybody-else-is-an-idiot tone of near-psychopathic rage, but Mike Gravel kept his anger — if not his scathing wit — pretty much in check.
Sen. Christopher Dodd and Gov. Bill Richardson both presented themselves as serious people who have been in government forever, and intend to stay there, with Dodd winning the boilerplate trophy by a narrow margin.
The only candidate to draw real blood in the debate was Kucinich, who horrified liberals everywhere by saying that Iraq is now “the Democrats’ war.”
A blog called Digby’s Hullabaloo quickly accused Kucinich of “undermining the single most important rationale for a Democratic president, which is that the Republicans are responsible for the mess in Iraq,” adding that “it takes almost nothing to gain currency in the MSM and that particular notion is a very dangerous one.”
You bet it is.
The very real danger is that the top Democrats will be caught in a withering crossfire, with Republicans accusing them of wanting to “cut and run” from Iraq, and the rest of America saying, “if only they would!”
Mike Gravel underscored the risk by pointing out that most of the people onstage with him were “part of the leadership right now in the Congress, and could end the war if they want to.”
If Kucinich and Gravel aren’t included in future debates, look no further for the reason.
The notion that Republicans — and not Democrats — are responsible for Iraq is the straw house in which all Democratic prospects for 2008 abide.
The logic goes something like this: Bush One said, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Then he raised taxes. Out he went.
The Democrats in 2006 said, “vote for us and we’ll end the war.” People voted for them. They didn’t end the war. Which only served to remind people that many of these Democrats voted to authorize the war in the first place.
Dennis Kucinich isn’t the big bad wolf. Neither is Mike Gravel. What the two of them said can hardly be called unthinkable, if most of the country is already thinking it.
It’s only a matter of time before people also start asking, where were the Democrats on Katrina? Did they do anything to save the people of New Orleans, or were they content to sit back and enjoy the effects of the debacle on Bush and the GOP? Have you heard any of the leading candidates talking about the Right of Return for displaced residents of the Crescent City?
Instead of trying to convince people to unthink what’s already been thunk — instead of endlessly jockeying to avoid “ownership” of the war — it’s high time for the Democrats to step up and claim it — and end it.
They need to stop seeing the war as something they can use to regain the White House, and begin to see it as something they must stop at all costs.
Otherwise, if the single most important rationale for putting a Democrat in the White House is Iraq, then there is no rationale. People who live in straw houses shouldn’t run for president, when the truth is blowing in the wind.
DAVID VEST can be reached through his web site at www.rebelangel.com. A new CD featuring him, “The Last of the Best: Live Recordings by the Paul deLay Band,” will be released on June 12.