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The Texas Blue
Advancing Progressive Ideas

Iowa Democratic Candidate Debate: The LiveBlog

8:40 A debate on Sunday morning? If there was any question that the election cycle's in full swing, this should get rid of doubt. The eight Democratic candidates for President will be appearing this morning on a special edition of ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos in preparation for the Iowa Caucus. You can also catch this debate after 3pm on ABC's web site, or at 7:30pm when it gets rebroadcast on C-SPAN. The running trend of prediction has it, unsurprisingly, that Edwards and Obama will be looking to differentiate themselves from national first-place poller Hillary Clinton to try and steal some of her thunder.

8:58 One of the advantages of having the debate on a network with local programming: we get to avoid the pre-show punditry that we normally get on CNN or MSNBC. (One of the disadvantages: we miss the MSNBC punditry. I'm not going to include CNN there; I really usually have no idea what those guys are thinking.)

9:00 In case you're wondering, this makes for the second DNC-sponsored event. The debates start with George Stephanopolous going down the order, not in which candidates were standing, but in which candidates placed in the most recent Iowa poll. The top four or so are probably known to you, so in case you were wondering, Biden and Kucinich are tied at 2%, Dodd is at 1%, and Gravel doesn't register. Stephanopolous starts off by trying to pick a fight: the first questions are on the discussions that Obama doesn't have the experience and Clinton the uniting ability to be President. That's the most uncomfortable laugh I've heard from a crowd in a while.

9:04 Clinton gets to answer first on Obama's inexperience. She takes the high road, saying she's running on her own merits. When George S pushes her on the quote that's been cited of her commenting on Obama, she points out that there was a specific disagreement there, on a hypothetical question about Pakistan, not a statement on the Senator as a whole. Good save, Senator! Dodd gets to answer next, as he had also commented on Obama's experience, and echoes Clinton's statements. Biden also says the same, but is called on a statement he'd made earlier on the question of Obama's being ready for the presidency, saying that Obama "could be ready, but is not yet." He says only that he stands by his statement. Really, that's probably the best answer one can pull off after having made a statement like that. Looking like he was equivocating would have damaged the one clear message and image that Biden has.

Richardson gets the first zinger of the night. "Obama stands for change. Clinton has experience. With me, you get both." Yuks from the audience. He's also on message; he points out that he's got the experience and the resume that shows he's been doing this stuff. George doesn't seem to like the dodge on the question, though, and asks again if Obama's ready. Richardson talks about Obama being about "change, and a fresh face in politics." That would be a no, Governor?

9:11 Obama gets to answer. "Well, I prepared for this debate by riding the bumper cars at the state fair..." Yuks #2! Tries to clarify what he'd said on Pakistan. He probably should've stayed with the "experience got us into this" message he used so well last debate. This is a lot weaker. Clinton gets the floor back, to specifically talk about Pakistan and the difference in policy between her and Obama, and says that she doesn't believe presidential candidates shouldn't get involved with hypotheticals. Obama answered that no, there's no fundamental difference, and she's trying to draw one where there isn't.

Edwards gets asked next, and says that no, presidential candidates shouldn't get involved with hypotheticals because it limits their options, but gets the first non-yuks round of applause by saying that this sort of division is missing the point. Gravel tries to get a zinger in there about how nice it is to hear that, but that change hasn't come in the past 25 years. But I honestly don't think anyone's listening to him anymore.

9:18 The next question is about the press flurry about Clinton's negatives being too high, and Rove's statement as he resigned that no one with such high negatives would ever win. Obama gets to answer first, and says that anyone on the stage that wins the primary would win the general election. Good start. He then, of course, tries to differentiate himself from Clinton, as he pretty much has to do. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I was the best candidate" to bring about change, he says. Edwards follows, and says that he sees it a little differently, and that it's not an issue of Clinton's popularity — it's one of Democrats making good or not making good on the message of change that they won with in '06. He points out his push to not take federal lobbyist money, of course, and that he's the guy that's been consistently for change.

Clinton puts the hammer down. Wow. She got herself an answer to the lobbyist issue between last debate and this one, and man, it's a sledgehammer. Everything you may have heard against Edwards' lobbyist pledge is in there. She started off by talking about how Rove says that of her because she's been fighting the Republican noise machine, and that if anyone thinks that they can fight the machine like she has and not end up with high negatives at the end of it, they don't know what they're in for. Applause for that. But then she follows up, on George's prompting for specifics on lobbying, by pointing out that yes, Edwards isn't taking money from lobbyists, but he is taking money from the groups that give lobbyists their marching orders, and that they're the real ones putting on pressure anyway; she states that she's been in favor of public funding, to take the money power away from the special interests who tell the lobbyists what to do in the first place. It was a succinct and thorough clobbering of the lobbyist issue. On reply, Edwards says there is a significant difference, and that lobbyists need to be sent the message that they are not in control of Washington anymore, citing as an example Clinton's attempt to do something about health care, and the speedy death that lobbyists wrought on her plans. But as a reply, it by default doesn't ring as powerful as Clinton's statement. It was a bit too long, and it was second.

Dodd uses his time to speak for public funding of federal elections, to applause. Kucinich accuses George both of asking polarizing questions and of being unfair in assigning time, and then discusses his health care plan.

9:30 Iraq pullouts are the next topic. Richardson and Biden start off at odds on their Iraq opinion, as far as whether they would like to see an immediate pullout. (Richardson pro, Biden con.) Clinton gets asked which is right, and gives a good if wonky answer on how movement that fast is simply militarily unfeasible and that we can't oversell this or we'll get bitten on it in the end. Edwards agrees that a pullout by December is difficult, but again notes that everyone on the stage would end the war, and draws a contrast to the Republican "stay the course" alternative. Gravel — goodness, I understand Gravel's message is that he disagrees with the world, but at some point he has to talk less about how everyone's wrong and more about what the right answer is. Otherwise, he's just some pissed-off guy on a stage.

Richardson says that, no, we can pull out people all at once, and that additionally has the benefit of letting us pull out non-combat military safely, without leaving them behind as combat troops are pulled. Biden answers Richardson, and says that no, a troop pullout cannot happen that fast, and further draws a (fairly good) parallel to Yugoslavia to defend his Iraq plan, that includes a certain level of combat troops remaining in the area unlike how Richardson was depicting it.

9:39 Obama gets a chance on the Iraq question. She says that Clinton laid out good reasons why a fast withdrawal wouldn't work, and agrees with Edwards that anyone on the stage would get us out of Iraq, but then brings up the fact that he never voted to authorize the war in the first place. Got to give him credit — for someone who never had the option to vote for or against the war in the first place, he's sure getting some mileage out of that talking point. Ties that to the experience question, and points out that Cheney and Rumsfeld were the most experienced on the issue, and that we can't rely solely on experience and conventional thinking to guide us. Stephanopolous calls him on his statements — again — pointing out that he speaks a lot against "conventional thinking," but his ideas on Iraq sound a lot like Clinton's. Kucinich gets to talk (!), and calls him on that as he voted multiple times to fund the war.

9:45 Internet question: do you believe in a personal God, and whether prayer could have eased the suffering from things like Katrina? Clinton says you can't second-guess God, but that prayer is very important to her. Dodd says he agrees with Clinton. A tip: on a question about personal belief, don't me-too another candidate. Edwards takes a different angle, and says flat-out the answer is no: He prayed before his child died, and he prayed when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. So, no, prayer can't be used to avoid bad things. Gravel says he believes in love, and the courage that comes from that that lets people guide their destiny, and works in there his push for a national initiative. Hey, he has a policy point! Richardson talks about his Roman Catholic faith. Biden said that, as Edwards, the time to pray was after the death of his wife and daughter, for the strength to bear the cross that was given him. Obama tried to tie his answer to values in governance, but I'm not sure a question on personal belief, again, is the place to do that. Kucinich says he was praying to God this whole time that he'd be called on, and there it was. Audience laughs. Sadly, he doesn't use the opportunity in any distinctive sort of way either.

9:52 Dodd gets first answer on a video question from an Iowa farmer on how to protect small farms. Dodd gives a generic pro-small farmer answer; Edwards on follow-up gets asked to be more specific on trade policies that hurt American business, and he gives the standard Dem answer against our current trade agreements and how they hurt the economy in general without addressing the issue of farmers specifically. Clinton answers next, and actually gives policy points specifically in favor of small farmers (speaking against large-farm subsidies). Um, how do the first two *not* give detailed, specific answers to that? You're in Iowa, for goodness' sake! Obama... goodness gracious, if I didn't know better, I'd say his answer basically said that farmers don't need that much help. Went on about how we shouldn't cut ourselves off from the world and are willing to compete in the global marketplace. That says "no protections" to me. Richardson also answers with generalities, but in all fairness, he was notified by George that there were only 20 seconds until commercial so he was going to get cut off if he didn't keep it brief. Aaaand commercials!

9:59 Wooow! When have I liveblogged about commercials before? Well, here's a first: here in north Texas, one of the TV ads was for the cite, which is a pretty clear smear site trying to make labor look bad. I'm sure the candidates would have loved to know their debate was being used for a labor smear site. Grr.

Okay, back to the debate: another video question, stating that politicians tend to downplay negatives and asking each person on stage if there is a policy issue of theirs where negatives have been underplayed and what that was. Seriously, this is being let in as a question? How is this any different than the "what is one of your weaknesses" interview question that everyone hates and that doesn't tell you anything other than how well someone can dodge a question? Sure enough, lots of dodges. Biden gets a yuk in there when he says that he tends to get in trouble more for saying too much than saying too little, but I'm not sure that if I were him I'd want the last bit of America that wasn't paying attention to his speaking gaffes to find out about him.

Edwards clarifies the question, as no one's really answering it, and then he points to his vote on Iraq, which he's apologized for. Richardson is the next to actually answer the question. He says he's at about one mistake a week. Says he tends to make misstatements, and he's not the scripted candidate, but that when the chips are down, and someone needs to actually do something in the Middle East or Iraq, he does it. Back on message. Good job. Dodd mentions second-guessing himself and not filibustering the bill that withheld the right to habeas corpus. Frankly, no one else really answers the question, I think.

10:07 No Child Left Behind is up next, and merit pay for teachers in particular. Dodd starts, and says he's not a fan. Obama gets asked for a followup on that, and talks instead about how NCLB was not sufficiently funded at the federal level, also a valid concern. Clinton combines the two, and says she's for per-school performance pay and that NCLB needs significant reform. Richardson gets to be the first to pick the popular point, and says that NCLB needs scrapping. Also says that he's against performance pay for teachers, because he's instead for a minimum wage of $40,000 for teachers; he's also for universal pre-kindergarten and more of a push on science and math. Looks like he's got the popular win on this one. Obama says that there's a way to do performance pay that teachers will buy into. Gravel goes on again about how we are all talk, with a little dig about how the U.S. is 46th internationally in literacy. He is also, according to Stephanopolous, the only one that explicitly said he was for merit pay. (Though I think Obama was pretty clearly for it too, and he seemed to try to object when George made that statement just now.) Gravel has a point, though he can't speak on it to save his life: can you think of 45 other countries that have more of a budget they could leverage for education than we do? Kucinich says he'll be the one to talk about how this would actually get done, and says he wants to cut defense to fund education. Biden has a really interesting take on performance pay: says any teacher will tell you that the worst way to deal with performance pay is to pay for performance at the front end, by paying students that want to be teachers. Identify the best performers, and pay them as much to teach as they would get to be an engineer or such. That's actually a really good idea, and one I hadn't heard much of before.

10:16 30-second bites on banks lowering interest rates on loans. Clinton says it's good, but we need to do something about people already facing foreclosures. Dodd says yes, but you also need to increase liquidity. Everyone follows what the Banking Committee chair says; apparently he just redefined the question. Yes, we need more liquidity. Sadly, everyone is getting all economics-wonky. You can't do that in 30 seconds, folks; your message is going to get lost. The only one that got a smattering of applause was Richardson, who talked pretty straightforwardly about more transparency needed in the system. Not really much of a victory, though, just a less cramped and more understandable answer than anyone else. Obama basically duplicates Clinton's answer, and then tacks on another dig about lobbyists. Kucinich is the only one that says that no, the interest rate shouldn't be dropped, as you're only bailing out the creditors. The full answer is actually a pretty decent take on modern monetarism.

Then they're asked about decisive moments in my life that put them on the path to the presidency. Notable answers: Obama talking effectively about the hardships of his childhood. I liked Biden's answer on civil rights. And Gravel's answer, if you listen to it outside the context of his normal ranting and raving, is actually a pretty good statement on the complexity of governance and where real change can and should come from. Edwards, in case you were wondering, is the son of a millworker. And a millworker who tried to use public television to learn enough to get a better job. Clinton talked about the women's movement but brought the answer around to her mother, who she's spoken about effectively before. Does a lot to humanize her, I think, with the general public and push down those negatives. Too bad she only had a few seconds to speak on that. And that's the debate, folks! Again, we're on a network, so there's no postgame spin to blog about. Thanks for joining us, and see you at the next debate!

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