Ted Koppel’s opening gambit at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was so inane and disrespectful that at first I didn’t realize the proceedings were officially under way. When Koppel asked the candidates to raise their hands if they thought Howard Dean could beat George W. Bush, I assumed he was just warming up the crowd.
It was only after Koppel warned John Kerry that his time had expired that I noticed it was actually a few minutes after 7 p.m. To my disgust, I then knew that Koppel’s little exercise in horse-race stupidity was being staged not just for the benefit of a few C-SPAN geeks (me included) and the University of New Hampshire crowd. It was also part of the actual televised debate, as broadcast live on New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV (Channel 9), and rebroadcast later that night on ABC’s Nightline.
What a disgrace. Before the debate, Koppel told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz that his goal was to "keep people at home from dozing off." He accomplished that, but only by tarnishing his own considerable reputation. By focusing on Al Gore’s surprise endorsement of Dean, and on the polling and fundraising shortcomings of the other eight candidates, Koppel actually pulled off the heretofore unimaginable feat of giving Dennis Kucinich a moment in the spotlight.
"I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country," Kucinich said angrily (redundant, I know). "To start with endorsements — we start talking about endorsements, now we’re talking about polls, and then we’re talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don’t have to talk about what’s important to the American people."
The crowd went wild.
The beneficiary of all this was, of course, Howard Dean. This was to be the debate at which someone — anyone — finally threw something at the former Vermont governor that stuck. Instead, the Gore endorsement, and Koppel’s obsession with that and the horse race, let Dean off the hook entirely. Dean’s just-good-enough answers — especially his explanation of why American troops need to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future, a stance that may accomplish the much-needed task of pissing off the Dean Youth — were sufficient to leave the dynamic unchanged. And the dynamic is that, barring a mind-blowing implosion, Dean has all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination.
So why did Gore endorse Dean? Let’s drop the cynicism for a moment and assume that Gore likes what Dean stands for, and wants to help him wrap up the nomination at a time when his endorsement can make a difference. Gore showed signs in the 2000 campaign of being more liberal than Bill Clinton, and certainly more liberal than his running mate, Joe Lieberman. (That said, Gore could have made more of an effort to tell Lieberman ahead of time.)
At the same time, Dean’s record in Vermont was that of a Clinton-Gore centrist. It could very well be that both men share the experience of having found themselves moving to the left as the depredations of the Republicans have become increasingly blatant and repulsive.
Secondarily, it wouldn’t surprise me if — as others have also noted — Gore wanted to send a message to the Clintons, who are widely believed to have encouraged Wesley Clark to jump into the race.
After a shaky start, Clark now seems poised for his own 15 minutes on the national stage. It’s probably already too late to dislodge Dean, but the media want a two-candidate race. The polls suggest that Clark is inching ahead of the fading Kerry as the main challenger to Dean.
Thus a leading subplot of the next few weeks may be an epic battle between Clinton and Gore, as fought by their surrogates.
Issue Date: December 12 - 18, 2003
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