Monday night's Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, didn't settle much, but it provided a neat snapshot of each candidate's campaign just two months before the primaries. Howard Dean, the clear favorite to win the nomination, continued to criticize Washington while attempting to blunt attacks from his opponents -- which on Monday focused on the hot political topic of the moment, Medicare.
Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., neck-and-neck with Dean in polls for the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, started the attacks, and was later joined by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who needs to beat Dean in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27. Gen. Wesley Clark, who has had an uncertain, late start to his campaign, presented himself as the only candidate with credibility on security issues. And Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who has struggled to be noticed by voters so far, mostly stayed out of the fray, and tried to distinguish himself as the only candidate presenting a positive message to voters.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who is not competing in Iowa, wasn't there at all. (He was kept out of the debate by the Democratic National Committee, which sponsored the event, after he asked to participate too late.)
Clark also isn't competing in the Iowa caucuses, but he seemed to use this debate to launch a newer, more forceful image, loudly criticizing the Bush administration's handling of the nation's security. "Our great President Harry Truman said this," said Clark. "He said, 'When you're president of the United States, the buck stops here.' Now, we know who did 9/11 and we know who is directly responsible for it, and that's Osama bin Laden. But the president of the United States is responsible for U.S. security. And I think that's an issue in this election. And the question is, is he doing and did he do everything he could to protect the people of the United States?"
He also tried to put to rest an earlier hedge on whether he would have voted in Congress to authorize the war in Iraq (when he said that he "probably" would have), telling moderator Tom Brokaw that he "bobbled the question." And he grew uncharacteristically animated as he condemned the president's handling of the lead-up to Iraq. "The real issue in front of us is that this president misled the American people and the Congress into war," he said, practically yelling. "It's wrong. If you wrote this script in a movie, it would be rejected as being outrageous."
Gephardt continued to criticize Dean for his record as governor of Vermont, where he cut spending to balance the state's budget. "He cut Medicaid," he said. "He cut the prescription drug program. He tried to eliminate it three times in the mid-'90s that he had in the state of Vermont. He cut funding for the blind and the disabled."
As he has all week, Dean defended his record, saying that he had taken actions necessary to preserve the program and balance his state's budget. "We did not, of course, cut Medicaid," he said. "What we did do was make sure that we could keep the people on Medicaid. Not one person -- unlike almost every other state in the country, not one person lost their Medicaid when I was governor of the state."
Kerry, who was participating via satellite from Washington, joined in the attack and said that "Dick Gephardt was absolutely correct" in his criticisms, leading to the following exchange between Kerry's looming head on a TV screen and Dean:
Kerry's head: "The question is will you slow the rate of growth? Do you intend to slow the rate of growth in Medicare because you said you were going to do that?"
Dean: "Well, what I intend to do in Medicare is to increase reimbursements for states like Iowa and Vermont, which are 50th and 49th respectively."
Kerry: "Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor, yes or no?"
Dean: "We're going to do what we have to do to make sure that Medicare lasts ..."
Kerry, interrupting: "Are you going to slow the rate of growth, Governor?"
[Uneasy laughter from the audience.]
Kerry: "Because that's a cut."
Dean, forcing a smile: "Well, I'd like to slow the rate of growth of this debate, if I could ..."
Whatever differences existed in the past between the Democrats on Medicare, they are united against a Medicare bill set to pass through Congress that will expand a prescription drug benefit to many seniors but which they see as a first step toward the program's privatization.
Nevertheless, the arguments over Dean's record on Medicare overshadowed, at least on this night, a much more clear-cut difference between Gephardt and Dean on the war in Iraq. Gephardt has stood by his original conviction that the war was justified, while Dean's candidacy has been driven in large part by his early opposition to the war.
Meanwhile, Edwards, trying to distance himself from the unpleasantness onstage -- and perhaps to differentiate his candidacy from his opponents' -- criticized his colleagues on the stage for criticizing each other. "When people see politicians yelling at each other, as they have in Iowa this week, they know their voices are not being heard," he said. "They spend so much time talking about what they're against, they've forgotten what they're for. We should be angry at George Bush, but we can't just be a party of anger."