YOU'RE LEFT shaking your head after a "debate" like this.
It's bad enough that the unwieldy field of nine makes any meaningful examination of the issues exceedingly difficult -- and, indeed, encourages a quick retreat to the standard tropes the candidates use every day. (Dick Gephardt does it so often he now introduces the quick link back to his stump speech by noting: "As I often say . . . ")
But throw in Ted Koppel fairly radiating self-satisfaction as he wasted precious minutes pursuing questions that might politely be called inane and the whole event became maddening indeed.
Still, frustrating as the forum was, presidential politics is about making the most of the moment. The candidate who came closest to that last night was General Wesley Clark. When he began his campaign, Clark was a decidedly uncertain trumpet, but in several answers last night he spoke with both conviction and seeming expertise about the United States and its role in the world.
Asked if foreign policy questions were truly paramount in an election when many voters say they are concerned about the economy, health care, and the like, Clark made an important (if self-serving) political point that his fellow Democrats shouldn't lose sight of: "We have to be the party that can stand toe to toe with George W. Bush on national security as well as the party of compassion."
Too often these debates devolve into a contest to see who can denounce the Republican incumbent in the strongest terms, a tedious exercise that emits a good deal more heat than light. It was refreshing to hear Clark say he wanted to put emotions aside and discuss, in a little detail, his plan to reshape the American presence in Iraq.
Clark maintained that the UN is not able to take over the Iraqi mission and that "nobody can provide security for the Iraqis as they develop their own internal defenses except for a force under US leadership." That, Clark said, means creating an international organization to administer Iraq, with the US troops reporting through NATO and working toward a clearly defined goal: a unified Iraq, with some sort of representative government, a country strong enough to repel Al Qaeda but not so strong as to threaten its neighbors.
Are those plans realistic? In a true debate, viewers might have gotten a good exchange. Last night's forum didn't offer that opportunity.
Still, at a time when the race for the number-two spot in New Hampshire is wide open, Clark made it clear he was a candidate worth listening to.
Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is email@example.com.