DETROIT – In an impassioned display of speechmaking and fingerpointing, the nine candidates seeking the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination jockeyed for the spotlight during a nationally televised debate last night.
While certain candidates clarified their stances on domestic and foreign policy issues, the hopefuls also competed to curry favor with the audience by challenging the validity of one another’s platforms and questioning various political positions they took on past issues. Central topics covered during the debate included the war with Iraq, the Bush administration’s tax cuts and the economy.
Gathered before a crowd of 3,000 members and guests of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute – a body of lawmakers lobbying for the interests of black and urban-dwelling Americans – candidates responded to four lines of questioning. A panel of three moderators addressed candidates with questions pertaining to domestic and foreign policy before posing questions related to their political reputations.
Although all the candidates agreed that President Bush has mishandled the post-war situation in Iraq, their complaints ranged from misappropriation of funds to what role the United States should play in rebuilding the country.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO, accused President Bush of pulling a “bait and switch” on the country. He said Bush did not devote enough resources to capturing Osama Bin Laden, instead saving key military personal for the war against Iraq.
“I’ve been against this war from the beginning … and I’m against it now. It was an unnecessary war,” Clark said. “(President Bush) didn’t use diplomacy, he didn’t use leadership – he didn’t bring the rest of the world with us.”
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted in favor of the war but has criticized Bush’s reconstruction efforts, said, “What I voted for was to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, but to do it right.”
Calling for an international alliance to handle postwar reforms, he added, “You have to take the target off American troops – you have get rid of the sense of American occupation.”
“We blew up the place and now we need to fix it,” said Sen. Moseley Braun of Illinois, referring to America’s rebuilding of Iraq.
Sharpton, who also said he supported America’s reconstruction efforts overseas, added that postwar management must be a multinational task.
“We need to go to the U.N. – we need to ask them for a multilateral commitment and we need to show the troops we love them by bringing them home,” Sharpton said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, whose comments consistently triggered massive applause from the crowd, echoed Edwards’ statements.
Although other candidates also voted in favor of the war, they said they opposed his and decision to appropriate $87 billion to the reconstruction effort, often adding that the monies could have been better spent domestically.
“To vote ‘yes’ on (the $87 billion appropriation) would be to give this president a blank check – and I will not give George Bush a blank check,” said Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
But Clark, who has made his foreign policy experience the centerpiece of his platform thus far, had to defend himself against accusations that his stance on the war has been inconsistent and “confusing,” as described by Huel Perkins, one of the debate moderators and news anchor for Detroit’s WJBK-TV.
“It took (Clark) four days to decide whether voting on $87 billion was a good idea,” said Sen. Joseph Liberman of Connecticut, referring to Clark’s opposition to the appropriations but his vocal support for the war last March.
Clark, who released his economic platform just last week, has drawn criticism for lacking a sound domestic policy. As moderators shifted the debate to domestic issues, candidates voiced their opposition to Bush’s income-tax cuts and debated methods to salvage the Medicare program and increase national employment.
“I think what you’ve got in this country is a real absence of responsible government,” Clark said. “We need to recapture some of the revenues that were given away in those tax cuts to the wealthy Americans.”
Illustrating his plan to aid the economy and boost employment, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) said his plan would repeal some of the Bush tax cuts, allocate funds for higher education and create a public works program.
“I have a plan called ‘Cities Rising,’ ” Edwards said, referring to his domestic agenda,”to bring jobs to urban America and bring incentives for new businesses to start there.”
Many candidates pointed to Bush’s trade policies with countries such as China as the cause of economic misfortune at home, adding that China has undermined American manufacturing by withholding its currency from international markets.
Resounding with many of the other candidates, Sharpton said Bush’s tax cuts benefited mainly wealthy families. In addition, he said foreign trade policies have encouraged American manufacturers to move their businesses overseas, burdening many working-class families.
“To lecture the working class Americans on how they can do more when you have the Enrons of the world offshore doing nothing – I think it’s an insult to the American people,” Sharpton said.
Speaking on Bush’s foreign policy, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, said, “All the candidates now … say they would never sign a treaty like (the North American Free Trade Agreement) with countries (like China) that wouldn’t have protection for labor and environment.” He added, “We need a new trade policy that is optimistic – that raises standards for other countries.”
But not all candidates expressed consummate domestic policies.
Despite his leading status in Newsweek poll released last week, Dean has been criticized along with Clark for not pronouncing the details of his plan to balance the budget. Fielding questions following the debate, Dean said, “we have a plan that we’re working on, but we haven’t made it public yet.”
Responding to questions as to the efficiency of the debate Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffy said he thought the lineup of nine candidates did not clutter the debate. He also added that the committee would select their candidate for the election by mid-March.
Voicing her approval of the debate, Michigan Student Vice President Monique Perry – who attended the debate along with 14 other students of Students Supporting Affirmative Action – said, “Al (Sharpton) played the favor with this crowd in general.” She added that “(the debate) was a good thing for Detroit.”