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The Nine Contenders
April 12, 2003
By David Swanson

Editor's 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 be great.

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 preacher said.

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 money?

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 preemptive wars.

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 for them.

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 website.

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 everyone.

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 doubts.

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 you!

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 it didn't.

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 found.

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

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