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Not Much Action In the Latest Democratic Debate

Political debates with eight presidential candidates are a little like Hollywood movie trailers. There is some action, a moment or two of high drama or low comedy, but inevitably you’re left with more questions than answers and most certainly an incomplete picture. That was the case Sunday night with CNN’s Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire. [IMGCAP(1)]

After two hours of questions, however, viewers did begin to get a glimpse of what a Democratic presidency would mean to themselves and the country.

First, regardless of which candidate is the eventual nominee, if a Democrat wins the White House, taxes will go up. Count on it.

Second, getting out of Iraq as quickly as possible appears to be the Democratic Party’s idea of how to win the war against radical jihadists. Apparently, there is no grand strategy other than bringing the troops home and Bill Clinton out of mothballs as a “roving ambassador” for peace.

Finally, the American health care system will change, perhaps dramatically, and certainly at huge cost and risk. Memo to small-business employers: “You’re in our cross hairs.” Memo to personal injury lawyers: “Not to worry; tort reform is off the table.”

The CNN debate, moderated by Wolf Blitzer, also gave voters a sense of the top candidates’ strategic positioning through a generally lively discussion of important and some not-so-important issues. It was clear that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has decided to embrace the role of patient, thoughtful den mother to what she hopes voters will see as a bickering boys club. To that extent, she succeeded Sunday by giving a cool and calculated performance.

When it came to the Iraq War, the focus of the debate, Clinton straddled the issue with the agility of an Olympic gymnast as she argued that, despite her vote to authorize the president to act, it was “George Bush’s war.” She was at her most flexible, however, when she addressed how to deal with Iran.

Her policy toward Tehran, she said, would be a “process of engagement” with “great diplomats,” in the mold of her husband’s administration, overlooking the lack of outcomes from Bill Clinton’s Middle East foreign policy to bring about peace. She also asserted that “Iran having a nuclear weapon is absolutely unacceptable. We have to try to prevent that at all costs,” but she gave no specifics on what a Hillary Clinton administration might do in the face of failed diplomacy.

For years, Democrats have been denouncing the Bush administration for refusing to hold direct talks with Iran. With the release of the Baker-Hamilton report, the denouncements became demands that the U.S. open a dialogue with Tehran. Perhaps Democrats ought to be careful what they wish for.

One day after the administration acquiesced to these calls from Democrats and held the first direct talks with Iran in almost 30 years, the Iranian government charged three Iranian American scholars/journalists with espionage. Ironically, one is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, headed by none other than Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana Representative and 9/11 commission vice chairman.

Strategically, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) seemed to be comfortable with his second-place standing in the primary polls. He refused to lob any bombs at frontrunner Clinton but did try to capitalize on his position as the only top-tier candidate to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning. He also clearly had spent time between debates brushing up on issues, trying to fill out what many, even in the Democratic Party, have characterized as a substance-free, empty suit.

The only real electricity of the night came when former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) charged that Obama and Clinton had lacked leadership when it came to the latest battle on Capitol Hill over war funding. Obama shot back that when it came to leadership on the war, Edwards was about four and a half years too late. Obama won the sound bite of the night.

As far as strategy goes, Edwards seems to be running as a hybrid candidate — part New Dealer, part anti-war McGovernite, and part class-warfare warrior, betting his campaign on the conventional wisdom that Democratic primary voters are hard-core, anti-war leftists.

The proof was evident in the debate when he refused to back away from his statement last month calling the war on terror a “bumper sticker slogan” that, he said, President Bush had used “to justify everything he does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture.”

Edwards ignores history with this kind of irresponsible statement. The takeover of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979, the killing of Marines in Beirut, the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, and the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole all happened well before the Bush presidency. Edwards’ statements reflect the worst kind of political hyperbole.

After months in third place, his performance Sunday night reflected a strategic decision to begin taking aim at the frontrunners. He made little headway, however, as Clinton refused to be drawn into an argument, and Obama deflected his jabs with ease. His absurd views on the war on terror didn’t help him, either.

The Democratic debate in New Hampshire probably did little to change any minds or help the undecided choose a candidate. While the eight candidates on stage Sunday night were clearly reaching out to the Democratic base, they need to remember one simple fact, just as the Republicans should in their debate tonight. With the new media today, what you say in Manchester doesn’t stay in Manchester.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.

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