Democrats Bob and Weave

Just to make sure everyone knew who the real candidates were at last night's Democratic debate, CNN placed the outsiders literally in the wings. Way out on the right and left margins of the line-up were peace candidate Representative Dennis Kucinich and maverick former senator from Alaska Mike Gravel. As in the Republican primary, it is the job of these quixotic figures to tell the unvarnished truth, while the rest of the field and debate moderator Wolf Blitzer smile condescendingly. Gravel, sounding like his Republican counterpart Ron Paul, was the voice of reason on Iraq. But he also set the record straight on gays in the military. While Hillary Clinton struggled with her qualified endorsement of her husband's don't-ask-don't-tell policy, Gravel explained that, no, it is not complicated and difficult to craft the perfect compromise on this issue as the frontrunner suggested. Just as Harry Truman integrated the military by executive fiat in one fell swoop, so, too, can the President order the simple integration of gays and lesbians.

Kucinich was slower out of the blocks, failing to give a direct answer to a question about whether the Patriot Act, which he rightly opposed, made possible the recent arrest of terrorist suspects plotting an attack on Kennedy Airport. Instead of dealing directly with the issue, Kucinich said something vaguely confusing about how Americans need to reconnect with their essential identity. Still, it was he who called his fellow Democrats to account on funding for the war. The power of the purse is Congress's only way to check the war. If they pull the funding, "the war is over," he said. He, too, set Hillary Clinton straight on whether it is possible to stop having an endless "conversation," and do the right thing. Kucinich corrected Clinton's suggestion that Iraq is Bush's war and the Democrats are neither culpable nor fully in control. "Oh, no," Kucinich said. "This is the Democrats' war, because the Democrats were put in charge in the last election." While Hillary and Obama both voted against the recent cave-in on continued funding, both have voted previously, and repeatedly, for other funding resolutions, and expressed sympathy for their colleague Joe Biden, who said, "We're funding the safety of the troops"--never mind that continuing the war will only cost more lives. Biden won't stop voting for more funding, he said, until there is an even larger Democratic majority in Congress. Too bad for the people who die waiting for the Democratic leadership to pull that one off.

Edwards also attacked the two frontrunners for failing to speak out against the recent cave-in that sent more money to the war without any timetables for withdrawal. They ultimately voted the right way, he said, but at the last minute and without comment. The bill, Edwards said, was the "moment of truth" on Iraq. Anyone who wants to be President has "a responsibility to lead" on the crucial issue of getting us out of the war.

Obama came out ahead in the exchange with Edwards, though, pointing out that Edwards had voted for the war originally. "You are four and a half years late on leadership on this," he said.

Little noted during the debate was Hillary's most conservative statement of the night. Taking a line straight from the neocons who got us into this disastrous war in the first place, Clinton asserted "it is the Iraqis who failed to take advantage of those opportunities" that we supposedly gave them. Blaming Bush, underplaying the Democrats' ability to end the war, chastising the Iraqis ala Donald Rumsfeld, and giving vague, mixed signals about how she plans to lead, it's Clinton who gives the antiwar base plenty of reason to feel nervous.

On the popular-outside-Washington issue of universal health care, Edwards challenged his opponents by pointing to his more detailed and more progressive plan, which actually covers everyone. Obama and Clinton also used the phrase "universal health care," but neither has produced a truly universal plan, Edwards pointed out. Still, it was up to Kucinich to shout from the wings that "there's only one way" to get to universal health coverage, and that is "a single-payer, not-for-profit " system like Canada and most of Europe have. That's not on the table among the mainstream candidates. "They're talking about letting the insurance companies stay in charge," he said. "We need a President to challenge that."

In our strange political culture, the Democratic candidates all denounced the havoc Bush has wreaked in Iraq and lamented the demise of American diplomacy and credibility abroad, yet submitted to several flippant "show of hands" votes posed by Blitzer: quick, raise your hand if you are willing to kill a bunch of innocent civilians with a Hellfire missile in order to get Osama bin Laden! Only Kucinich balked at that one, asserting that he's not in favor of foreign policy by assassination. Obama quickly stepped in to show he's not afraid to pull the trigger. Clinton, alone among the candidates, objected to the testosterone test style of decision making--quick, you're under attack, how fast can you deploy missiles to kill a bunch of people without stopping to flinch. Isn't this style of leadership what got us into the mess we're in today? Clinton, to her credit, pointed out that a more considered approach might be what we want from our next President.

Listening to those voices from the wings could help, too.

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