A serious debate would begin by asking each candidate (including Mike Gravel, who was locked out of the room) what he or she would do if elected president. Thursday's debate in the opening 30 minutes had me longing for even the level of honesty and substance of the MSNBC debate hosted by Keith Olbermann in Soldier Field some months back, at which Olbermann managed the superhuman feat of asking things like "Would you cancel NAFTA?"
On Thursday Wolf Blitzer devoted the first 20 minutes to goading Clinton and Obama into bashing each other over how they have run their campaigns. Edwards was given a token 60 seconds to join the fight. At 8:18 (the debate began at 8:00 p.m. ET) Biden was permitted to add his two cents. At 8:20, Edwards was asked to bash Clinton from another angle. He took the bait, but then turned to the topic of poverty, in open violation of WB's rules. (Blitzer had announced at the start that candidates would not be permitted to stray from the topics of the questions asked.) At 8:23 Dodd got to speak, still on the debate over the debate. At 8:24 Richardson was allowed to add to the same substance-free topic. He introduced himself to the crowd as a way of registering his disastisfaction with being ignored for 24 minutes.
At 8:26, with Kucinich not having had the opportunity to say one word, CNN asked all the candidates to say whether they would support the Democratic nominee no matter what. They all said yes, except for Kucinich, who took the opportunity to say 10 words, receiving huge applause. His words were: "Only if they oppose war as an instrument of policy." A little vaguely worded, but I don't think that vagueness was Kucinich's intention. I think his intention was to contrast his own position with that of most of the other people on the stage. If he is not nominated, he is not going to be able to support the nominee.
Half an hour into this train wreck, no candidate had had an opportunity to speak to their priorities, but we heard a lot about CNN's. At 8:27 CNN asked Obama about immigration. At 8:29 WB dumbed this down and asked all the candidates for opinions on giving drivers' licenses to undocumented people. At 8:32 Kucinich got a chance to say his 11th word. He shifted the topic to NAFTA and took exception to the stupid question, refusing to answer it, winning loud applause.
Then CNN started asking various candidates about education, and for the first time asked Kucinich a non yes/no question. But instead of sticking with education, the topic of the questions before and after Kucinich's, WB asked Kucinich what he disagrees with labor unions on. Kucinich's answer was good, but not inspired. Maybe after 37 minutes, the Congressman had drifted off into daydreaming.
After education, CNN asked every candidate except Kucinich about Pakistan. At the end of this segment, at 8:52, Kucinich said "Hello? Hello?" But CNN refused to ask him a question.
Next CNN turned to Iraq, and this time Kucinich was included. He said that Congress should cut off the funding [big applause]. Then he answered the Pakistan question that CNN had refused to ask him. Blitzer quickly cut him off.
At 8:58, CNN came back to Kucinich on China trade, and he nailed it. And he criticized Edwards for having voted for normal trade relations with China. Edwards dodged the question. And Edwards criticized NAFTA, although he has made clear he will not end it. WB asked Clinton whether NAFTA was a mistake. She answered by talking about Chinese pet food. He asked again, and Clinton said NAFTA did not deliver on what she had hoped it would do. Dodd criticized Clinton and Obama for supporting the Peruvian trade agreement.
At 9:07 CNN's "clean coal" sponsored debate turned to energy questions. By this point, even Obama was criticizing WB for repeatedly framing questions along the lines of "Assuming we can't find a serious solution, what should we do about ...?" Criticism of WB was becoming the easiest way to garner applause. Richardson also rejected WB's frame and shifted the topic to renewable energy. CNN quickly brought the blather back to nonsense and specifically the topic of Hillary Clinton being a woman.
The second half of the debate included pre-arranged questions from non-CNN employees. The first question came from a 3-tour Iraq veteran and his mother. He said he wanted the troops brought home now and not sent to Iran. She asked what the candidates would do now to prevent an attack on Iran. But CNN only allowed Biden, Clinton, Edwards, and Obama to answer. Clinton talked "carrots and sticks," while the rest of them criticized her vote to name the Quds force "terrorists." But Biden broke from the script in a surprising way.
"If Bush takes the country to war in Iran without an act of Congress," Biden said, "then he should be impeached!" [applause]
Richardson said something useful on the next question: he'd end the occupation by 2010. But Kucinich was not given the opportunity to say he'd end it in 2008.
When WB finally turned to Kucinich, rewording an audience member's question, he said "You were the only one who voted against the PATRIOT Act..."
"That's because I read it," Kucinich interjected to huge applause.
Kucinich nailed the question and turned to the topic of preventing an attack on Iran as well. WB saw what was coming and tried to cut him off, but Kucinich said "Impeach them now!" [huge applause]