Anger Management

Third Democratic Presidential DebateAt last night’s third Democratic presidential debate, held at Pace University in lower Manhattan, Senator John Kerry and Rep. Dick Gephardt both took swipes at Governor Howard Dean with the obvious intention of provoking him to anger. Dean, who has been nagged by a reputation for irascibility, took the bait.

Responding to an allegation by Gephardt that he had sided with former House Speaker and notorious Republican Newt Gingrich on health care issues (including some negative comments on Medicare), Dean shot back that the claim was “a flat-out falsehood,” that he had, “frankly done more than [Rep. Gephardt]” to deliver health care, that “nobody here deserves to be compared to Newt Gingrich,“ that the allegations were “not helpful” and distracted from “the real enemy: George W. Bush.”

This was well past the halfway mark of the debate, and in fits and starts, Dean was more or less reprimanded by a good number of the nine other candidates sitting on stage for his impassioned defense of his positions. But here’s the thing: his outburst, especially in its context, was composed, brilliant and thrilling. It was a perfectly appropriate rebuke to apologists for the wayward Democratic party like Gephardt and Kerry, who have both run lackluster campaigns based on hackneyed tactics drawn straight out of the professional politician’s playbook. Gephardt, in particular, seems capable only of expression through blustery, crowd-appeasing gestures, and no one looked emptier and less substantive on that stage than he did.

The Party that Hates Itself

The attacks also hallmarked a disturbing determination to cast the rise of Dean’s candidacy as a kind of poison within the Democratic party. As a Dean supporter, I’m willing to admit to the fact that Dean may not be a viable candidate in the general election — I have to emphasize the conditional there — and that it’s a real possibility that I’ll have to eventually support a less inspiring politician like Kerry or Gephardt.

These guys should be understand this calculus, as well; they should realize that Dean, whether he’s going to prevail or not, has fostered a genuinely robust surge in political activism. Their response to this has been defensive; they’ve to tried to denounce an entire subset of Democrats and quash the enthusiasm of a growing block of voters who are going to vote in 2004. That’s ludicrous.

Generally Speaking

A quick note on the performance of General Wesley Clark in last night’s debates. The general, who kept emphasizing that he is a newcomer to the race, obviously spent a lot of time trying to get up to speed on the issues, and he had a competent though markedly nonspecific answer for most every question. As a public speaker and a telegenic presence on the stage, he was fine, but I was pretty disappointed by the lack of meaningful insight into the positions he holds on economic issues, which was the theme of the debate. Had his appearance not been preceded by the enormous anticipation and publicity that the press has poured on him, he would have been more or less dismissed as a lightweight on that stage. Instead, he got a pass, which is lucky for him, but I hope he doesn’t get too used to it.