April 12, 2003
By David Swanson
Note: Democratic Underground welcomes articles promoting
individual Democratic candidates for political office. Publication
of these articles does not imply endorsement of any candidate
by the editors of Democratic Underground.
WASHINGTON, D.C., April 9, 2003 – Tonight I attended the
first gathering of the nine candidates for the 2004 Democratic
nomination for President. The event was hosted by the Children's
Defense Fund, and the questions and statements focused to
a large extent on policies affecting children.
Overall the event was encouraging. Many good policies were
proposed, many witty remarks made. It went beyond opposing
the worst of the current administration to proposing aggressive
new ideas. The candidates did not attack each other, and they
did attack George W. Bush. The middle-of-the-roaders like
Kerry and Gephardt said some better things than they might
have had Sharpton, Kucinich, Dean, and Mosley-Braun not been
there. Lieberman seemed to have found himself in the wrong
party – and that's the good news: the crowd and most of the
candidates sounded like a real live opposition party, not
Republican Lite. Graham and Edwards are the candidates I haven't
mentioned yet, neither of whom impressed me much.
The bad news is that I can't take the comments I liked from
these nine people and combine them into my ideal candidate.
We have to pick one of these individuals, each of whom has
shortcomings. Eight of them are nowhere near the walking disaster
our current President is. Two of them have the potential to
Let's look at them in order, from best to worst, in terms
of their apparent ability to serve well as president, setting
aside for the moment questions of whether they have enough
money or whether enough Americans will vote for someone of
their race or gender.
1. Al Sharpton was clearly the most impressive and
well liked of the bunch. He was the sharpest, most intelligent,
funniest and most personable, and best on the issues. He received
by far the most applause. In his opening remarks he nailed
George W. for proposing the No Child Left Behind Act and then
proposing to underfund it, and for promising health care to
Iraqis but not Americans.
Many, if not all, of the candidates complained about plans
to spend money on Iraq rather than on America. None seemed
sufficiently skeptical of the seriousness of Bush's plans
to rebuild or democratize Iraq. None seemed able to promote
a Marshall plan for Iraq while condemning the bombing of it
and promoting social spending in America instead of tax cuts.
When each candidate was asked about the war, Sharpton – who
was one of five who opposed it – asked where the nuclear weapons
and other weapons of mass destruction were. Rather than toppling
statues of Saddam Hussein, Sharpton proposed toppling Americans'
lack of health insurance, illiteracy, and childhood obesity.
And again, to wild cheers, he asked why we had a budget to
occupy Iraq but not for the 50 states already occupied.
Michelle Martin of ABC asked Sharpton about a correlation
between poverty and out-of-wedlock births. Oddly, she seemed
to believe that the latter caused the former. Sharpton gave
a great answer, denouncing the Secretary of Education as a
disgrace for praising Christian schools and ridiculing public
schools. Religion is for Sunday, not for legislation, this
Mark Shields from the News Hour with Jim Lehrer asked Sharpton
why, in his book, he had called Fidel Castro awesome. Sharpton's
answer was brilliant, explaining that in a section on leadership
qualities he had also admired Ronald Reagan's leadership skills,
while he disagreed with him on nearly everything, and Winston
Churchill's, whom he regarded as an imperialist.
Shields asked if Sharpton agreed with Bush on anything, and
Sharpton said he agreed with his practice of hiring people
of color, but that Bush was choosing the wrong individuals.
All of the candidates were asked what they would do if the
Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action. Sharpton was the
first to say he would fight to create a new case and get the
issue back before the Supreme Court for a "rematch." "If we'd
given up after Plessy v. Ferguson, we would never have gotten
to "Brown v. Board of Education."
In closing, Sharpton said he was fighting for Martin Luther
King's dream and (sounding a lot like Congressman Jesse Jackson
Jr.) for a new Constitution including the right to health
care and the right to a good education.
Much of the two-hour event involved discussion of the Children's
Defense Fund's Leave-No-Child-Behind motto and bill, as well
as Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, Sharpton closed by telling
CDF's Marian Wright Edelman, "Marian, I'm the youngest up
here. I'm the child of this panel, and when the vote is in
I will not be left behind!"
Will white people vote for Sharpton? Will the middle-of-the-roaders
that our two parties love to fight over vote for him? Will
the much larger group of non-voters become voters for him?
Does it matter that he once pushed a rape charge on behalf
of a woman who turned out to be lying? Does it matter that
the media has tended to portray him poorly? Does he have enough
I don't know. But in recent weeks the media seems to have
treated him well, and he seems to have the skill to make the
media like and respect him. I am willing to forgive his previous
support for a false charge, and I say that as someone who
has been falsely accused of rape and done jail time as a result.
This is about the future of our country, not past resentments.
As for racism, we claim to have overcome it; let's prove it.
As for money, if you want a strong candidate who can tear
Bush apart in a debate, Al's the man to fund.
2. Howard Dean was the other candidate who seemed
to have potential for greatness (as well as for attracting
white voters and gun nuts). He was confident and forthright
and seemed to be there because he wanted to accomplish things
beyond self-promotion. He opened by saying he would get health
insurance to every American, get rid of the No Child Left
Behind Act, provide early childhood education, and not support
The last remark, like most opposition to the war from the
five candidates who opposed it and the one who waffled (Kerry),
received thunderous applause.
Dean opposed preemption and opposed Congress's having given
the President a blank check six months ahead of time. With
the $200 billion that we would spend on the war, he said,
we could insure every child in America under 18. (Dean does
get repetitive in his fondness for talking about health insurance,
but not nearly to the extent of, say, Forbes on a flat tax).
Dean was asked if he would support the Dodd-Miller bill to
Leave No Child Behind (the Children's Defense Fund's comprehensive
package of social reform, not to be confused with the phony
Bush No Child Left Behind Act, which Dean called the No School
Board Left Standing Act). He said he would if the federal
government paid for it. He opposed unfunded mandates.
This position, combined with his frequent bragging about
successes in Vermont, has some people saying he's provincial
and that Governors make bad presidents. But he really has
had success in Vermont that I would like to see duplicated
nationally. And there really is a problem with unfunded mandates.
We now have a federal government rapidly seizing power from
states and abusing it. Despite Republican rhetoric about states'
rights, which is quite clearly nothing more than dishonest
rhetoric, states' rights actually matter to me.
Dean was asked about a current stealth bill by Republicans
in Congress that would make gun manufacturers virtually immune
to law suits. Dean said he would oppose that, and would support
the assault weapons ban and the Brady bill. Then, he said,
he would leave gun control up to states, because Vermont doesn't
need it, but New York does. To those of us who will never
own or use a gun, this sounds half-hearted and willfully blind
to the problem of people transporting guns from Vermont to
New York. While states need power, the federal government
needs to be responsible as well. In terms of political strategy,
however, this position might win Dean more votes than it loses
him. At least he opposes the unchecked use of bombs.
Dean was also asked about welfare reform, and he said he
approved of the 1996 approach but not of Bush's proposal for
40-hour work weeks and no child care. He was proud of having
done "welfare reform" first in Vermont. I need to see more
details on this from him. Even if it was done more humanely
in Vermont, if he supports what was done nationally in 1996,
then he supports brutal cruelty.
Dean said he supported affirmative action and that poor whites
in the South should and should be appealed to by Democrats,
who should tell them "Your kids don't have health insurance
either." These are people, he said, who have voted for Republicans
all these years, and the Republicans haven't done anything
Dean closed by saying he'd gotten health insurance for everyone
under 18 in Vermont (what about those 18 and over?) and reduced
child abuse by 43 percent. Dean said he would be glad to be
called a liberal if that meant balancing a budget, providing
universal health insurance, subsidizing early childhood education,
and increasing college attendance. Then he advertised his
3. Dennis Kucinich was my favorite going in and a
considerable disappointment. I felt I could have articulated
Kucinich's views for him better than he did himself. What
I've read by and about him inspires me. I had never seen him
before; I really should watch television once in a while.
Kucinich seemed angry, annoyed, and bitter. Clearly there
is a lot to be angry about these days, and at this event as
well as at other recent events the media treated Kucinich
very unfairly, but he handled himself poorly. He looked down
half the time he was speaking, as if he were reading notes.
His words were often right, but people had to force themselves
to applaud, because his delivery was just not up to the level
of his ideas.
Kucinich opened by saying he had been working to create universal
pre-Kindergarten, to increase a child care block grant, and
to create universal health care. He denounced the war as aggression
and pretense. He called poverty and homelessness weapons of
mass destruction. He was the only candidate to have endorsed
the Children's Defense Fund's Dodd-Miller bill.
Juan Williams of NPR and, more importantly, Fox asked Kucinich
if there was any social program he opposed. Kucinich seemed
evasive and it took him two tries to get out the right answer,
that he wanted to transform the country and focus on social
programs rather than wars and tax cuts. He came off as fed
up with the public for not already being aware of and supporting
his positions. As a member of the public who is fed up with
the rest of the public for not being aware of and supporting
Kucinich's opinions, I was still turned off by his attitude.
The next nasty question they gave Kucinich was whether there's
anything he's ever been wrong about. Sharpton would have chewed
up that sort of question and spit it back at the reporters.
Kucinich let it floor him.
Kucinich's answers continued to be good ones. He would create
a Department of Peace, he would use the Justice Department
to reinstate affirmative action through new cases if we lose
it. He would fully pay for college and graduate school for
His closing began with the only antagonistic remark to a
fellow panelist. Turning to Lieberman he said, "Let me tell
you why this election will not be close." The people will
show up when the Democratic Party shows up and puts eligibility
for Social Security back to 65, repeals NAFTA and the WTO,
provides universal pre-Kindergarten, guarantees education
through college, says no to preemptive war and yes to nuclear
disarmament, and relates to the whole world community with
economic and social justice.
I'd love to have a chance to choose between this remarkably
good person and George Bush, but the gloss is off. I'm having
4. Carol Mosley Braun was good but not great. Her
big accomplishment was opposing welfare reform. She considered
it an outrage to suggest we would rebuild another country
and not this one. She opposed the Bush No Child Left Behind
Act, wanted more federal money for schools and Head Start.
She often admirably brought the conversation back to the
root cause of many problems: poverty. She was the only one
to mention reparations for African-Americans, a living wage,
or the need to undo some of the outrages of the PATRIOT Act.
But she complained about not being given enough time to speak,
when clearly she didn't have a whole lot to say.
5. Dick Gephardt told a personal story every time
he spoke, some of them relevant, some of them clearly used
to avoid talking policy specifics. His solution for health
insurance would be to pay businesses to provide it. Just what
we need! We'll keep the predatory insurance companies in control
but feed them some more money by way of the IRS. No thank
Gephardt said he would spend $100 billion on a refundable
tax credit for businesses so that they would provide health
insurance. "That way we cover businesses that don't pay taxes."
Perfect, more money for Enron. Has it occurred to Dick that
every other industrialized country spends less on health insurance
than this one and covers all their citizens by not leaving
the insurance companies in charge?
Gephardt supported the war and connected it the September
11 attacks, an outrageous thing to do when so many Americans
already falsely believe that Iraq caused those attacks.
Gephardt said he would get rid of almost all of the Bush
tax cut. "All of it!" someone shouted from the audience. Exactly.
When asked about foster care, Gephardt had nothing to say
and pretended to for a while before deciding to just rant
about how awful Bush is. Well, that's something. Daschle wouldn't
do that much.
Gephardt supported affirmative action, as all nine did, and
gave some specifics for what he would do about it. In his
closing remarks he said he would pay off the college loan
of anyone who would become a teacher and teach where they
were needed for five years.
6. John Kerry came off as trying to find that ever-rightwarding
middle ground between the Republicans and the Democrats. He
waxed patriotic about the "liberation" of Iraq before saying
we needed to do more at home. He said he supported the war,
but wanted the UN and NATO involved. However, he voted for
a resolution that did not require that.
Kerry defended women's right to abortion, and then said that
we need a Democratic Party that is not a second Republican
party. That's right, but the next thing out of his mouth went
against it. He defined a good judicial ruling as one in which
you can't tell whether the judge was a liberal or a conservative.
Michelle Martin of ABC later asked him whether that meant
that Dred Scott could never have been overturned, and he claimed
Kerry was asked how he was unique, and the only unique answer
he gave was that he was elected without contributions. His
wealth is not very unique in Congress however.
His answer on affirmative action was good, including discussion
of Bakke and taking credit for suggesting that Trent Lott
resign. His closing was about the Youth Build Program, which
I didn't know much about and still don't.
7. Bob Graham was an unimpressive mix. He said some
really good things, but was not a good speaker, and he tended
to throw praise for the military or some other less progressive
attitude into each comment. He said he had voted to eliminate
ALL of the president's tax cut.
He said the war makes us less secure, not more. He was the
only one to make this important point. But he went on to emphasize
the importance of fighting terrorism, not the importance of
comporting ourselves in the world in a manner that does not
drive people to attack our country. He said he would make
the child tax credit fully refundable and would cut payroll
taxes, not income taxes. He would reverse the "horrendous
mistake" of 1996 and let the children of legal immigrants
again receive CHIP. He favored affirmative action and thought
the military had set the best example there. In conclusion,
he believed American public education had created the last
two centuries' scientific progress, and he opposed tax cuts
for the wealthy.
8. John Edwards claimed a working class background,
something Kucinich certainly has. Edwards proposed some good
ideas and plenty of bad ones. He seemed almost Republican
in his belief that simple phrases spoken with conviction were
all that was needed to sway us saps in the audience.
Edwards wants a $2,500 tax credit for family leave, he wants
to enforce child support, and he wants to provide free college
or community college for any student willing to work 10 hours
per week. (The second time he said this he left out "or community
college," drastically improving the proposal.) He likes the
war, but not the tax cuts.
He would take some halfway steps on health care, such as
expanding SCHIP and including parents, and letting people
buy into Medicaid. He would take anti-terrorism away from
the FBI. He would protect civil liberties (no specifics or
regrets on votes). He would out-Republican the Republicans
on "homeland security." And he would take a new approach to
the world, since Bush's was a failure.
He would also pay teachers to teach where most needed.
9. Joe Lieberman should enlist now. He regrets having
escaped military service. It's not too late, Joe! He loves
the bravery of our soldiers, but doesn't like tax cuts (so
he claimed at this event).
Lieberman opened by criticizing the Children's Defense Fund's
motto, suggesting that we shouldn't just leave no child behind
but help them to GET AHEAD!!! This bombed.
He said he supported the war because of the weapons of mass
destruction. Sharpton had just pointed out that none had been
He bragged about how "welfare reform" had gone after mothers
and said it was now time to go after fathers.
Lieberman's comments were met with groans from the audience.
When he said "Let me make one final comment," a couple of
people clapped enthusiastically.
David Swanson's website is www.davidswanson.org.