Among the Democrats

On a big night for the sitting president, his Democratic challengers gather together to rally the faithful -- and crack Bush jokes.

Published April 10, 2003 2:17PM (EDT)

Any event hosted by the Children's Defense Fund inevitably provides a rarefied supra-ultra-über-liberal environment. So when the nine declared Democratic presidential candidates gathered together for the first time at a CDF forum Wednesday night in Washington, it wasn't all that surprising that -- even though much of the rest of the country was discussing the fall of Saddam Hussein's evil regime and jubilation in the streets of Baghdad -- those who mentioned their support of the war would be greeted by the lonesome echo of one attendee's applause.

Or that a candidate -- in this case, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio -- could actually propose free tuition for any American who wants to attend law school and not be interrupted by derisive laughter.

It was the kind of setting where Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., could feel perfectly comfortable earnestly declaring his belief that "children are our future." (He did this without any musical accompaniment.)

The forum was not a debate in any sense -- if anything, candidates praised one another, though some barbs lurked beneath the odd remark. President George W. Bush suffered all of the blows thrown, with universal agreement that he and his proposals -- most notably his tax cut -- were a disaster for children and the nation at large. The sentiment was clearly shared by the host of the evening, Children's Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman, who introduced the event by condemning Bush for offering "budgets that leave no millionaire behind but leave millions of our children behind."

Each candidate was permitted a leniently timed one-minute opening statement, some questions from the panel -- moderator Judy Woodruff of CNN, Michel Martin of ABC News, Juan Williams of Fox News Channel and syndicated columnist Mark Shields -- after which they were given time for a brief closing statement. With little but the war to separate their views, and no real interaction (much less confrontation) among the candidates, the hopefuls felt occasionally obliged to point out the few biographical (or, in one case, biological) areas where they differed from their competitors.

Kucinich was the only one to have grown up poor, at times living in cars. "I remember where I came from, the crossroads of hope and despair," he said. Former ambassador to New Zealand Carol Moseley Braun noted that she was "the only candidate who ... bore a child and raised one." Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the only physician so, he argued, he brought a special understanding of healthcare needs.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was the only Vietnam veteran and "the first and perhaps the only U.S. senator" to call for the resignation of former Majority Leader Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., after he whistled Dixie. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., attended a 1963 dinner at Yale with then-Marian Wright and legendary campus priest Rev. William Sloane Coffin, where he accepted their challenge to help register black voters in the South. Making his first appearance as a candidate, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., pointed out that of the four candidates from the Senate, he was the only one to vote against giving the president the power to wage war against Iraq.

In one way, the evening was like a science project illustrating the challenge for Democratic presidential hopefuls: appeal to the important, moneyed liberals (like many of those packed into the hall of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel ballroom) while not alienating swing voters and millions of other Americans who look at the world very differently. This was an audience, after all, where the Rev. Al Sharpton -- a man often called "controversial" because that's one of the nicest things you can say about him -- drew exuberant hoots nearly every time he spoke, a place where Gephardt defended his vote for the war by forcefully arguing, "I do not want to have another 9/11," only to be met again by the sound of one person clapping. The trick for the more credible candidates trying to position themselves as close to the center -- like Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Gephardt -- is to appeal to the ballroom clappers, particularly the wealthy ones, without losing sight of the more important, larger audience.

Without any real debating, much of the night consisted of lofty rhetoric -- health insurance and educational programs were proposed and funded through the repeal of all or most of the Bush tax cut -- and jokes at the president's expense.

Sometimes even the same joke: When asked about the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision about the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School, Gephardt noted the "irony" that Bush weighed in against the program since he had benefited from one of the oldest preference programs in the world -- "the family legacy; that's how he got into Yale!" Graham later repeated the joke, with a nod to Gephardt for getting there first.

"I'm the youngest one here, I'm the child on this panel," said Sharpton. "And when the vote is in, I will not be left behind."

Denying that funding for national security would hobble his domestic program proposals, Edwards drew guffaws with a veiled snipe at Bush's intellect, saying that "it's actually the responsibility of the president of the United States to do two things at one time." Lieberman said that "kids deserve more from the White House than a T-ball game on the White House lawn."

Even if no one in the audience wanted to hear about it, candidates talked about the war, often to explain some mixed feelings. Graham said that he voted against the resolution giving Bush the authority to use force last fall because he regards al-Qaida as a higher priority. "Saddam Hussein is an evil person, but he lives in a neighborhood with a lot of evil people," the tanned-and-rested senator, who had a deteriorating heart valve replaced on Jan. 31, said. Kerry -- himself relatively fresh from the sickbed -- argued that, as opposed to war supporters like Gephardt and Lieberman and opponents like Kucinich and Dean, he "really fall[s] in a different place." He supported the president, he said, "presuming that a great country like ours would work with multilateral institutions" like the United Nations. But Bush proved his presumption wrong and so "I've been very critical." Edwards said that "America should lead in a way that brings others to us, not that drives them away."

"We've gotten rid of" Saddam Hussein, said Dean, who has risen in the polls partly because of his vociferous condemnation of the war. "I suppose that's a good thing." That said, he opposed the doctrine leading up to the war, and expressed concerns about the cost of postwar Iraq.

No matter the candidate's position on the war, all agreed that not enough was being done at home. Watching the U.S. "liberate the people of far-off lands" made Kerry note that it was "time to put that power to use at home." Lieberman "saw the statue of Saddam Hussein falling in Baghdad" and felt "the hopes of the children of Iraq rising" and wanted the same here, instead of "financing tax breaks on the backs of American children." Sharpton wondered why soldiers helping Iraqi children obtain universal healthcare would come home to a country that didn't offer their children the same. "Why can't we come up with budgets for the 50 states we already occupy?" he asked.

"Let's face it," Kucinich said, "poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction." Later asked by a reporter on the panel if he could name one domestic program he opposed, Kucinich allowed that he couldn't. His whole platform is a choice of "war and tax cuts on the one hand or the reconstruction of a social safety net on the other hand."

"Charity begins at home," Braun said, explaining her continued opposition to the war.

The president's adoption of the CDF's motto "leave no child behind" for his education bill drew sneers along with the bill itself. Calling it underfunded, Braun deemed it the "leave no child" bill, Dean called it the "leave no school board left standing" bill. Gephardt, who supported the bill, acted as if the Bush administration had hoodwinked him. "It's a fraud," he said. "They never meant it."

Hints of future debate topics lurked in between the talking points. Braun mentioned the need for "a conversation about reparations." Sharpton argued that requirements of welfare recipients were a governmental cop-out for social programs that are lacking. Perhaps with Lieberman's frequent discussion of values and morality in mind, Sharpton said "we can preach on Sundays -- let's give Americans the right legislation Monday through Saturday."

Graham noted that he "voted to eliminate all of President Bush's tax cut" -- a reference to the fact that although he ultimately joined Lieberman, Edwards and Kerry in supporting the $350 billion alternative to Bush's failed $726 billion tax cut proposal on March 21, Graham was the only one of the four, and one of only 22 senators, to support an amendment that would have eliminated Bush's tax cuts altogether.

"I don't think you can vote for a new doctrine of presidential preemptive war and still maintain our values," Dean said in just the most recent of his Iraq-related shots against Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and Gephardt.

Woodruff noted a Dean quote from 1996 in which he defended welfare reform by declaring that liberals like Marian Wright Edelman are wrong: "The bill is strong on work, time limits assistance and provides adequate protection for children." Dean sneered that the quote was seven years old, joked that he would never stand by such a quote in front of Edelman, and then defended welfare reform -- a bill that prompted Edelman's husband, former assistant health and human services secretary for planning and evaluation Peter Edelman, to resign from the Clinton administration in protest.

With the first primary more than nine months away, candidates are generally loath to enter the muck of attacking one another -- with the exception of Dean, whose poll numbers have jumped as a result of his having done so. Now is more the time for preparation -- raising money, securing endorsements, hiring staffers, plotting strategies. Edwards has raised the most money, $7.4 million, with Kerry a close second with around $7 million and Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., a far third with $3.6 million.

As for endorsements, all nine of the candidates except for Graham spent Wednesday morning strutting and preening at the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department Annual Legislative Conference. Dean announced the endorsement of Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and last week rolled out a New Hampshire brigade that included two former Gephardt supporters upset with their former candidate's stance on Iraq. Wednesday, Lieberman was endorsed by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar, the highest-ranking Democrat in a reliably Republican state, and plans to announce 10 congressional supporters this week, including Democratic Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Ellen Tauscher of California, both Gephardt pals. Gephardt -- the former House minority leader, who resigned from the position last November after his fourth unsuccessful attempt to win back the House -- counts as supporters powerhouse Democrats like Reps. John Spratt of South Carolina and John Murtha of Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, Gephardt rolled out the endorsement of the International Iron Workers Union.

The next candidate forum will probably have even more candidates. National security expert and former Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., who on Tuesday told the Des Moines Register that a decision about his candidacy was only days away, and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whose possible candidacy was given some attention with the appearance of two Web sites promoting a draft movement, and, both have been discussed by strategists who think the Democrats need to do more to shore up their national security and military credentials.

When asked Wednesday why voters overwhelmingly support Republicans on such issues, Edwards claimed it was "because they haven't heard our case!" Insisting that Bush had botched much of the national security and foreign policy work voters care about, he noted that he'd been a trial lawyer for 20 years before running for the Senate in 1998. "This is the easiest case I ever had to argue," he insisted.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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