- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

Anyone who tuned into the Democratic presidential debate last Saturday night got to see a wildly eclectic bunch of candidates performing a not-ready-for-prime-time political roadshow.American humorist Will Rogers once said he did not belong to an organized political party — “I’m a Democrat.” And that’s the party that was on full display at the University of South Carolina in all of its disorganized, chaotic, backbiting glory. If these nine candidates agreed on anything, it was hard to see where.They disagreed about the war in Iraq. They lectured one another on national security and defense. They could not agree on health care or on gun control. They fussed on trade policy. They hated President Bush’s tax cuts but held different positions on how much to repeal, freeze or retain. They could not even present a unified front on how to strengthen the U.S. economy and create jobs. In fact, no one offered a clear, rational, detailed economic plan of their own.While they all denounced the Bush administration, they spent more time attacking, criticizing or admonishing their rivals.Their differences over Iraq and national security occupied center stage, because their party is split right down the middle on the war. And it’s going to take leadership or some clever straddling to unite its fractured base of primary voters.Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who has been Mr. Bush’s most loyal ally on getting rid of Saddam Hussein, lectured his rivals that the Democrats could not win the White House if they appeared weak on national security and keeping the country safe and the Iraq war was the biggest test on that issue. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s harsh antiwar rhetoric — “the wrong war at the wrong time” — was the wrong message at the wrong time, Mr. Lieberman said. John Kerry’s attacks on Mr. Bush for the way he handled the diplomatic buildup to the war, even though he voted for the war resolution, sent a message of “ambivalence” on Iraq. The Massachusetts liberal denied his straddling on Iraq was ambivalent.But Mr. Lieberman’s campaign dug out a quote from Mr. Kerry’s chief campaign spokesman, Chris Lehane, that said otherwise. “The country is clearly ambivalent about Iraq. Kerry has been exactly where the country is,” Mr. Lehane said. Boy, that’s leadership. But before the squabbling was over, Mr. Dean seemed to be backtracking on Iraq and his vociferous antiwar message that led the Kerry campaign to say he was not fit to be commander in chief. He never meant to say the U.S. may not be the world’s strongest military power, and would never “willingly allow our military to shrink,” he said. “I’m delighted to see Saddam Hussein gone.”Such flip-flops are evident elsewhere in the party. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who said Mr. Bush failed “miserably” in his diplomatic handling of Iraq and was in “a rush to war,” has had a dramatic change of heart, too. Mr. Bush deserves “great credit” for his leadership on the war that was necessary and “justified,” he told reporters last week.Why the switch? Mr. Bush’s public approval scores on his handling of the war against Iraq and terrorism are in the high 70s and the South Dakota senator is running for re-election in a state where the president is very popular.Even Mr. Kerry appears to have dropped his harsh attacks on the way Mr. Bush handled the diplomatic side of things in the runup to the war.But if some Democratic leaders were quickly abandoning or softening their 1960s-style, antiwar rhetoric, there was still plenty of silliness among the rest of the party’s presidential pack to keep this campaign lively.Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, trying to revive his sagging and messageless candidacy with a strong dose of economic populism, kept attacking U.S. corporations throughout the 90-minute debate.He bashed Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt’s not-so-bad idea of helping the uninsured get health-care coverage through tax credits, because it would help rich corporations. On tax cuts to spur investment and jobs: It would needlessly help big businesses. On economic policy generally: We’ve got to rein in the big corporations.Mr. Edwards, a personal liability trial lawyer who made a huge fortune by suing corporations, thinks he can win the nomination by running against corporations. Someone better tell him that not only do most Americans work for corporations large and small, more than half invest in them. No one has ever been elected president by being antibusiness.But even Mr. Edwards is a piker in the anti-business league compared to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a far-left Ohio congressman who said he wants to “take the profit out of health care.”The problem with hospitals, doctors and health insurance companies is the profit motive, he says. He wants the government take over and pay all the bills. To bankroll his nationalizing scheme, Mr. Kucinich would impose a nearly 8 percent payroll tax on all employers — a guarantee that worker paychecks will shrink by that amount across-the-board.If you think we have a crisis now with doctor and nursing shortages, not to mention unemployment, wait until Mr. Kucinich is put in charge of things. Did I tell you that this is the guy who was mayor of Cleveland when it went into bankruptcy?Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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