Playing Nice in Des Moines: A Democratic Field Guide on Trying Not to Screw Up

Say what you will about the Democratic contenders this year, but at least they know how to get nasty. Not that you got to see any of that in today's debate, unfortunately. How nice was it? It was so nice, that the debate couldn't even score any headlines on the Drudge Report. Instead, Matt D ran with a weather report from the Northeast. The forecast: Cold and snowy in the Bos-Wash corridor, sunny and bright in Des Moines.

The tone of the debate was set early in the morning, when Hillary Clinton preemptively apologized to Barrack Obama for one of her aides having maybe kind of mentioning Obama's admitted youthful drug use. Shortly thereafter, John Edwards apologized to the entire jury pool of Mobile, Alabama for never having brought a major case to trial there, and Dennis Kucinich said he was sorry to the space aliens, for stealing one of their futuristic flying saucer metal alloys to keep his hair like that. Kucinich was reminded that he hadn't been invited to the debate, and had, in fact, no campaign in Iowa at all. Then there was hugging, both arboreal and otherwise.

Then came the debate itself, where moderator Carolyn Washburn seems to have learned at least one thing from her disastrous performance with the Republicans on Wednesday: She did not use the phrase "you have 30 seconds" every 23 seconds or so. Otherwise, Michelle Malkin's description of her as a "schoolmarm" seems pretty much on-target. Tonight's "important" topics included air conditioning, school art projects, cutting military spending in wartime and whether Joe Biden is really comfortable around persons of color. As a television debate moderator, Washburn, I'm sure, makes a lousy newspaper editor. And vice versa.

One thing most everyone could agree on was that "the rich" were going to have to pay more taxes to pay for the spending the Democrats promised to cut in the '06 election, but have failed even to try to accomplish. What remains to be seen is how many millions of middle class taxpayers will be defined as "rich" before all is said and done. Safe guess: Nearly all of us. Clinton, however, said she wants "to keep the middle class tax cuts" passed a few years back by the Republicans and signed by President Bush. That's all fine and dandy, but won't actually accomplish anything unless the Alternative Minimum Tax is either abolished or reformed. Washburn, surprisingly, did not have a follow-up question for Clinton regarding the AMT.

And what about Obama, the man who might actually make Hillary's inevitable victory seem a lot more, um, evitable? Near as I can tell, Obama wants almost all the same things the other candidates want. The difference being that Obama is full of the kind of audacious hope that can bring people together from all sides, while wearing genuinely stylish suits, and speaking in platitudes broad enough to display a year's worth of saline breast implants for the entire staff of the Nevada Chicken Ranch.

Bill Richardson reminded me of a combination of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, minus the charisma and looks -- leaving what, exactly? Well, you're left with a guy promising to balance the budget, get a line-item veto, eliminate pork and end corporate welfare as we know it. Which sounds pretty good, until you remember that Richardson also claimed that "Universal health care is a human right." This caused Reason's David Weigel to "destroy copies of my column on [Richardson's] libertarian instincts." I feel your pain, David.

Edwards, of course, doesn't really seem to give a hoot about federal spending, so long as there's more of it -- and more taxes and rules and regulations and forms to be filled out in triplicate by frightened corporations who will work for you the people instead of the powerful whom he's fought all his life, even from the time his daddy was suffering from diseases caused by sharecropping on toxic waste farms imported by unfair Chinese trade practices made possible by one of those AFTA deals he's genuinely sorry he ever voted for, just like he feels about Iraq and why won't Clinton man up and apologize already like he did years and years ago, when the nickel was worth seven cents and a Union job meant a high-paying job for life in factories we've outsourced to Indian call centers where they barely speak English, not that he wants to offend Spanish-speaking Americans unless maybe they want drivers licenses. Well, that's as near as I could figure.

Barely mentioned: Iraq, which doesn't exactly fit the narrative right now, but the winner will get back to you next summer, when hopefully, maybe, things will have gone back to s**t over there. The candidates also weren't asked much about illegal immigrants, although it can be safely assumed that the Democrats would be nicer to them than the Republicans would be, without actually being too nice.

Also in attendance were Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and maybe some other guy no one will remember after the New Hampshire primary on January 8.

Oh, joyous day!