What I was thinking during tonight’s Democratic Presidential Debate in New Mexico was mostly that there are a heck of a lot of candidates, and that the ones on stage weren’t even all of them! The Reverend Al Sharpton was a no-show due to travel difficulties, and Wes Clark has yet to end his painful teasing and toss his hat into the ring. I also wondered if anybody could really tell these people apart; I don’t mean political junkies like myself, I mean any average person flipping around on the television and hearing most of these candidates speak aloud about their positions on the major issues for the first time.
That they are generally indistinguishable at this stage is to be expected, I suppose, as the 21st Century voting populace’s apathy for the political process is going to become the stuff of legend. What matters more, though, is that — at last — a lot of these people actually sounded like Democrats! Forgetting even Rep. Dick Gephardt’s galloping, practiced denouncement of George W. Bush, what remains is still a bunch of mostly white guys who want to end or curtail NAFTA, make universal health care a reality, and repeal some of the most disastrous tax cuts in history. These aren’t necessarily great campaign tactics, but they are significant by the fact that they actually showed up in the debate, and often made themselves heard forcefully.
This is a big change from the Democratic party of 2000 through 2002, which will be remembered mostly for its bewildering determination to co-opt the Republican agenda. Well, that good ol’ fashioned DNC was still there in the form of Joe Lieberman — in my estimation, just about the worst candidate ever — but mostly, this was a group of donkeys finally willing to put aside the paper trunks and own up to being donkeys. I’m not sure how much of this can be written down to the influence of former Governor Howard Dean’s runaway success in recent months, but it’s got to be no small amount, and here’s what I’m saying: whether Dean is ultimately electable or not can be argued (I argue that he is), but if nothing else, the man has moved the nature of the discourse back to where it belongs.