Big plays frequently open off Broadway. Carson City, Nevada, is a long way from Broadway. The tiny capital of the state that holds the second-in-the-nation contest in the 2008 Democratic presidential sweepstakes hosted the first forum of the presidential campaign yesterday. The event showcased a promising field that needs a lot of work.
The need for work begins with the frontrunner, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Carson City is an Old West frontier town. It’s not hard to hear the faint echoes of gunfire looking at the desert vista that surrounds it and the snowcapped Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Yesterday the echoes of a different sort of gunfire emanated from Los Angeles, where a former patron of the Clintons ripped into them, calling them liars and all sorts of nasty things. He did it on behalf of the second place candidate in the field, media phenom Barack Obama, who curiously chose to skip the event at the very moment in which his substantiveness is coming into question. Rather than laugh off the comments as those of a vain billionaire angry because he failed to gain a presidential pardon for an activist who killed FBI agents, Clinton’s campaign allowed a dustup to occur that overshadowed her Nevada performance, just as Obama’s campaign allowed his triumphant visit to Los Angeles to be overshadowed by a willful financial supporter.
Clinton, like all of the candidates, actually did rather well in the forum itself. Moderated by her husband’s former communications director, ABC commentator George Stephanopoulos, the format was quite straightforward if ultimately disjointed. Each candidate appeared separately, gave a brief opening statement, took three questions from Stephanopoulos, made a closing statement, then went off to do a brief press conference with waiting reporters. Since the press conferences took place while another candidate was performing in the forum, this made for interesting choices for the crowd of 100 journalists in attendance.
After longshot Senator Chris Dodd led off (his main impact at the forum was to help Stephanopoulos learn how to pronounce “Nevada” after the talk show host was booed by the crowd for calling it Ne-vah-da), Clinton appeared. Her casual “Hi, George” to her husband’s old advisor got a big cheer from the crowd, as did her lauding of the the event’s co-host, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the big public employees union.
Clinton immediately launched into a litany of positions designed to identify with the union crowd that is key in Democratic primaries, noting how she’d stood with them against President George W. Bush on overtime, working conditions, minimum wage, and social security. She ran through her opposition to privatizing government, saying this administration has three times as many private contractors as her husband had. She called for cutting the contractors back, to save $8 to $10 billion. (Thought actually contracting out can be more cost effective than going with unionized benefit packages.)
She talked up universal health care, a “new and secure clean energy future,” and more opportunity for college education. She didn’t mention Iraq, which of course dominated most of the discussion at the forum.
So of course Stephanopoulos began with Iraq, as she might have anticipated. Calling her vote to authorize the war “sincere based on the facts and assurances of the time,” Clinton said the focus now needs to be on what is to be done to force Bush to change direction. She called for stopping the escalation, getting proper equipment for the troops, placing the Iraqi troops more out front than our troops, who she wants to start “redploying,” i.e., withdrawing, in 90 days. And she wants to required new congressional authority for Bush’s actions in Iraq, saying what he was authorized to do ran out long ago.
Asked about health care, she said she would achieve universal health care “by the end of my second term.” And on the nasty interview given New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd by Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, now backing Obama, she softpedaled her campaign’s earlier harsh response, saying she wants a positive campaign that focuses “on what we want to do for America. Let’s not engage in the politics of personal destruction.” She closed by saying she thinks Bill Clinton was a good president — Geffen had blasted his old friend in the typically waspish Dowd column — a line almost guaranteed to get a rousing response from Democrats. Something Geffen and Obama would do well to keep in mind before they blunder on further themselves.
So far, so good for Clinton. She had walked back off the limb her campaign had gone out on by attacking Obama for his backer’s remarks (the Clinton campaign inaccurately identified Geffen as Obama’s finance chairman, which Geffen spokesman Andy Spahn clarified in an e-mail during the forum). But it quickly became apparent that Clinton would stiff the press on hand by being the only candidate not to do a press availability following her forum appearance.
Not to worry, as a number of us realized that there was only one way for her to leave the building. Soon over half the journalists in attendance were waiting for her to walk past a doorway around which we all gathered. We waited. And waited. Meanwhile, the forum droned in the background. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the former UN ambassador, entering the building, saw the waiting media crowd with apparent delight and turned to engage us. Whereupon I called out: “What about David Geffen?” Richardson, a fine banterer, quickly got that we were waiting for Hillary — okay, with some prompting — laughed and went on to get made up for his appearance. Meanwhile, Clinton’s staff was aware the press was waiting for her, but made no effort to engage.
It turned out, according to a Las Vegas newspaper reporter, that she was shooting an appearance on a Vegas TV show, a rather lengthy one. Clinton’s staff could have avoided wasting the media’s time by passing that on. When Clinton finally did leave, she swept past the few reporters still waiting, taking no questions. Which was another mistake. A pro can easily deflect the Geffen scandalette with a quip about not being cast in the sequel to Dreamgirls. Much bigger problems than the personal pique of a disappointed financial supporter loom ahead.
Meanwhile, back at the forum itself, John Edwards was turning in a typically polished performance. Making heavy note of his own apology for his vote to authorize the Iraq War, he didn’t say that Clinton should also apologize, but the intended inference was clear. Asked by Stephanopoulos if her answer on Iraq was good enough, Edwards said: “Whether it’s good enough is between her and her conscience. It’s not for me to judge.”
Among the candidates below the first tier, Richardson and Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did perhaps better than the others. And Congressman Dennis Kucinich, turning in an eccentric performance on stage replete with a physical demonstration of how he is the candidate with “no strings attached,” served notice that he is the Cassandra of the field, having warned about the peril of Iraq from the beginning, castigating the others for being against the war but not for cutting off funding, a position likely to become influential later this year.
While this first presidential forum was not a big newsmaker, it did accomplish several important things. First, it established that the Nevada presidential caucus is for real. Partisans of the longtime early states Iowa and New Hampshire had sought to denigrate the Nevada event. Some East Coast journalists, used to the winter wonderland delights of Des Moines and Manchester — a term used very advisedly, of course — had talked of ignoring Nevada. But with all the well-advised candidates on hand, and a schedule of more Nevada forums and debates to come — people close to Obama tell NWN he will be at the Las Vegas forum next month — it’s clear that Nevada will be an important early contest.
In fact, as Biden pointed out, it may turn out to be pivotal. Iowa will begin the sorting process in the field, but Nevada will show if anyone has recovered from an initial poor showing going into the New Hampshire primary. And it gives a candidate like Richardson, an impressive figure who should appeal to many in the party and the press, an important opportunity to wedge himself into the race in the face of more famous and better funded opponents like Clinton, Obama, and Edwards.
The event also reminded how the more casual atmosphere of politics in a smaller state is conducive to a good campaign. Bantering with and questioning, usually on the record, the likes of Richardson, Edwards, Biden, and Kucinich among others brings a useful and revealing flavor to the process that is missing with the formal and stylized events that increasingly dominate politics in California and elsewhere.
Richardson picked up on the banter about David Geffen and announced in the forum that Geffen should apologize to the Clintons and Obama should distance himself from the remarks. He called for a clean campaign pledge. Biden and others picked up on that. Of course they all love the Clinton and Obama campaigns choosing to make spectacles of themselves.
I’d run into Biden, in amusing fashion, as he picked up a box lunch before his forum appearance. Later we all got into it with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman on what needs to be done in Afghanistan. You don’t get this sort of interesting give and take with a classic frontrunner campaign. Such campaigns tend to run into trouble early on if they don’t make needed adjustments.
An important note for the Clinton campaign, whose candidate is in California today and tomorrow but will have no public events.