Orangeburg debate just
a start, but a good one
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
AS BOB COBLE walked out of a breakfast meeting Friday, the bearlike New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson placed him in a loose, amiable headlock and asked what he would have to do to get him to support his bid for the presidency.
“You’ll have to squeeze harder than that,” I thought. As the governor knew, the Columbia mayor is a John Edwards man.
But for those who had not made up their minds, the “debate” in Orangeburg Thursday night was a better-than-expected opportunity to begin the winnowing process.
Eight candidates in 90 minutes is patently ridiculous. But those who planned and executed it, from South Carolina State University to MSNBC, can take pride in making the most of the situation.
National media, as expected, focus on which of the “two candidates,” Hillary or Obama (like Madonna, they no longer need titles or full names), came out on top. Some stretch themselves and mention ex-Sen. Edwards.
OK, let’s dispense with that: Sen. Clinton presented no surprises, rock star Obama came across as pretty stiff playing in this orchestra — nothing of his usual, charismatic rolling thunder. Ex-Sen. Edwards did his usual shtick.
But some of us tuned in to learn something new. I did. And I didn’t care which of the overexposed, anointed titans of fund-raising would be a more ideologically pure party standard-bearer. Those of us who spurn both parties — in other words, those of us who actually decide national elections — were looking for someone we might vote for (if such a person survives the partisan gantlet far enough to give us the chance). We’ll be looking for the same when the Republicans meet at the Koger Center May 15.
I don’t think any of us got any conclusive answers. But the questions posed were good enough to provide some impressions, however scattered, that at least made the event worth the time invested:
Best new impression: I had heard good things about Gov. Richardson, but not met him before. The debate, plus his call-in to a radio show I was on Friday morning, made me want to find out more. I liked the fact that he was real, honest and unscripted, perhaps the result of being a governor and actually dealing with real problems instead of living in Washington’s 24-hour partisan echo chamber.
Best old impression: Could Sen. Joe Biden contain his gift of gab well enough to play well with others on such a crowded stage without his head exploding? “Yes.” Since I’ve heard him speak in our own board room for two hours almost without pause, this was a pleasant surprise. I’ve always liked the guy, but this is one Irishman who didn’t just kiss the Blarney Stone; he took it home with him.
Commander in chief? I expected the candidates to compete to see who was most against our involvement in Iraq and for the longest time. But if it’s fairly judged, Dennis Kucinich wins that pointless contest hands-down. It’s also a barrier to me, since I consider giving up in Iraq to be anathema. So I looked to see who was leaving themselves any room to present a more credible position in the general election, when it’s no longer necessary to court moveon.org. The winners of that contest: Sen. Biden, followed by Sen. Obama.
Second funniest moment: The look in John Edwards’ eyes when he acknowledged being filthy rich, just before going into his nostalgic boilerplate about having been poor once upon a time. This is a much-rehearsed look for him, intended to look like wide-eyed candor. But it struck me like, You bet I’m rich, and lovin’ it, too. Probably an anomaly in the camera angle.
Making Kucinich sound reasonable: A writer on Slate.com summed it up better than I can, as follows: “When the candidates were asked who owned a gun, (Ex-Sen. Mike) Gravel was one of those who raised his hand. ‘I was worried that he meant he had one with him at the moment,’ said a senior adviser to a top candidate.” I hadn’t gotten around to including a link to this particular candidate on my blog. After Thursday night, I don’t think I’ll bother.
Common sense: You could tell who really wanted to be president. They raised their hands to say they believed there’s such a thing as a global War on Terror, and didn’t raise their hands to support Dennis the Menace’s move to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney. Outside of partisan blogs there’s something we call the real world; everyone except Rep. Kucinich showed that they live in it at least part-time.
The most enduring litmus test: Even after all the times I’ve seen and heard this, the grip of the abortion lobby on the Democratic Party still strikes me as astounding. Is there any greater demonstration of the power of party uber alles than hearing a Roman Catholic such as Sen. Biden emphatically saying, “I strongly support Roe v. Wade,” and asserting complete faith in the existence of a right to privacy in the Constitution?
South Carolina’s shame: Only one thing was mentioned all night that let you know this took place in South Carolina — the Confederate flag at our State House. So much for our wish to build a new image based on hydrogen research and the like.
The event helped me begin to focus on this process, which has been easy to ignore with everything going on in South Carolina. There will be many debates, interviews and other opportunities before the winnowing is done. Whether this newspaper will support, or whether I personally will vote for, any of these candidates is a question that it is far too soon to answer.
But this was a start.