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Quizzing the candidates, Part 2

(Second of two parts)

I ASKED the Democratic candidates for president to answer five fair but nonroutine queries, hoping that their answers might reveal something interesting about what makes them tick. Everyone except John Kerry replied. Sunday's column summarized the candidates' responses to the first two questions. Here's how they handled the others.

3. What is the best way to achieve the colorblind society that Martin Luther King dreamed of?

Before there were racial preferences and minority set-asides, there was Martin Luther King's stirring plea for colorblindness: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Sadly, 35 years of affirmative action programs have left American law and culture more relentlessly race-conscious than ever. I wondered whether any of the Democrats would be bold enough to say so -- and whether any was prepared to acknowledge that the only realistic way to make King's dream come true is to act as if it already has: to scrap every law and institutional practice that treats people differently on the basis of race or color.

But there were no surprises. None of the candidates criticized racial preferences, not even indirectly. Howard Dean endorsed "diversity and affirmative action in education" and called platitudinously for "an honest, open discussion about race." Al Sharpton demanded "racial justice" over "racial harmony," and said it can be had "only by seeking true remedies to level the playing field."

Joseph Lieberman answered that "education is the biggest key to realizing the promise of racial equality," both because it is a "passport to opportunity" and helps combat prejudice.

Neither John Edwards nor Wesley Clark addressed race at all. Clark's hackneyed reply merely begged the question: "By bringing our diverse people together we will all be stronger -- and honor Martin Luther King's dream." Edwards advised taking steps "to lift up all Americans," in part by "expanding access to higher education."

Dennis Kucinich, characteristically brash, disputed the premise of the question. "King did not advise us to be blind to color," he wrote. "Affirmative action is needed . . . as long as discrimination exists, and reparations for slavery are long, long overdue."

(The candidates' complete answers to all five questions can be found online at

4. Is there any serious problem in American society that you do not believe calls for some kind of government response?

The Democrats all prescribe a wide variety of government cures for the ills from which America suffers. For that matter, so does the Republican they are running to replace: George W. Bush is burning through money faster than any president since LBJ, and, as his State of the Union address made clear, he's got even more ideas about involving the federal government in American life.

But what about ways to get the feds out of American life? Question 4 challenged the candidates to identify one national ailment for which they would not recommend federal intervention. How hard could that be?

Too hard for most Democrats, apparently. Just one of the contenders -- Lieberman -- came up with a specific answer: "incivility." While public officials can lead by example, he said, "government cannot apply laws or adopt programs to force Americans to be kind and decent to one another. . . . This is a problem that can only be solved by the standard-setters in our society."

Sharpton, while not citing a particular social problem, wrote that "government cannot and should not legislate people's values or regulate the same." Clark and Dean went only so far as to say that "there are many problems that can't be solved by government action alone" (Dean's words, but Clark's were almost identical). Kucinich's reply was unequivocal: "No."

From Edwards I got a bromide: "There is no question that what is most important in our lives is not government, but our families, our communities, and our faith." Well, stop the presses.

5. In 1981, President Reagan hung Calvin Coolidge's portrait in the White House Cabinet Room. If you are elected, which president's portrait will you hang, and why?

Reagan's conspicuous decision to honor Coolidge was surprising -- and revealing. Years later, Time Magazine's Hugh Sidey recalled the buzz that went through the press corps when the Coolidge painting appeared. At first, reporters thought the White House custodian must have fetched the wrong portrait. But Reagan was sending a message: He was putting Washington on notice that his campaign platform of lower taxes and limited government -- two touchstones of the Coolidge administration -- had not been merely rhetorical.

But there wasn't much "buzz" in the Democrats' portrait selections. With some of the candidates making two choices, there were three votes for FDR, two for Truman, and two for JFK. Safe picks all. Only one candidate broke from the pack: Sharpton said he would honor LBJ "because he had the courage and vision to pass the Civil Rights Act." And alone among the Democrats, he also promised "a prominent place" for a (gasp!) Republican.

Lincoln, of course.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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 JEFF JACOBY: Quizzing the Democratic candidates (Boston Globe, 1/18/04)
 JEFF JACOBY: Quizzing the candidates, Part 2 (Boston Globe, 1/22/04)
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