Forget the Debate

Democrats' Debate Fizzles; Dean Goes for an Image Make-Over

There was plenty of expectation but little drama during last night's Democratic presidential debate, the first since the frenzied reshuffling of the Democratic field in Iowa last week, and the last before the all-important New Hampshire primary.

Since the last debate several weeks ago, there have been putative adjustments in strategy, bandied about by the pundits. John Kerry has transformed himself into a folksy populist, and Joe Lieberman has scrapped his reputation as a scrapper. John Edwards added character to his charm (or was it just success?), and his message suddenly commanded attention. Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich are hanging on to keep the others honest. And Howard Dean, of course, has been stuck morosely in the hole he dug for himself when he let out that monstrous rebel yell.

After the debate, the Fox analysts concluded that the whole thing was a tepid affair, despite attempts by Peter Jennings to draw candidates into battle. "I'd say, 'Nice try'," Lieberman joked at one point, in deference to the new arbiter of successful campaigning, John Edwards. "I'm going to talk about myself." No news had been made, the analysts hurriedly agreed, and I'm guessing they then joined millions of other Americans and flipped to ABC for the real dish of the day: Howard Dean's attempt at rehabilitation on Primetime.

For every ailment in American politics, there is a cure, and it usually involves a prime-time interview filmed in gauzy light somewhere plush but rustic.

This interview, conducted by Diane Sawyer, turned out to be a spectacle no less bizarre than Dean's over-the-top Caucus response. The governor, who has received plaudits or endorsements from a former president, vice-president, and other notables, has been flattened by the charge that he is a closet weirdo, a trait more baffling to pundits than infidelity or corruption. So Dr. Dean sat with his wife, the very pleasant Dr. Judy Dean, as Sawyer pried for explanations and emotions that might transform him from caricature to human, from an angry liberal ideologue to a gentle, fatherly bureaucrat, or from inexplicable copy to a known quantity. Dean had pledged not to drag his family onto the campaign trail, which seemed, even to the most cynical observers, a move wholly without calculation. And he has managed to get in office and stay there without Dr. Judy giving TV interviews. But the candidate needed someone to tell the world he's not crazy, and Al Gore wasn't the man to do it.

This televised indignity is largely Dean's fault, surgery required after he let campaign wounds grow. In recent weeks, he rarely strayed from the soundbites of his stump speech, and by his own admission, he had become a kind of "rock star." Clips of Dean shouting were easy to find by anyone on the lookout for anger. Before Iowa, the Dean Show seemed less and less about voters, and more about not tinkering with a winning formula.

During last night's debate, only Al Sharpton reminded his colleagues not to act like Republicans. The others, except Kucinich, smelled independent voters, and when asked about values, fell over themselves to either explain that they liked guns, had fought wars, or believed the environment was God's cause. That is the consequence of "anyone but Bush," and so was last night's interview with the Deans. Still, as Dean sat with Judy at his side, it was poignant to recall his remark during the debate a half-hour earlier: "If we're willing to say anything we have to say to get elected, then we're going to lose."

 
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