Democratic Rivals Drift Toward Kucinich's Views On issue after issue, says Richard Wolffe of Newsweek, Kucinich's ideas have gone from outlying to mainstream. NPR's Democratic debate on Tuesday gave the darkest of dark horses a chance to shine.
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Democratic Rivals Drift Toward Kucinich's Views

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Democratic Rivals Drift Toward Kucinich's Views

Democratic Rivals Drift Toward Kucinich's Views

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ROBERT SIEGEL: From NPR News and Iowa Public Radio, this is Special Live coverage of our Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris.

STEVE INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.


There weren't any cameras or of audience or a 30-second time-limit buzzers at the NPR and Iowa Public Radio-sponsored debate. There were only three subjects discussed in almost two hours: Iran, China and immigration. That's it. So you can put away your I-didn't-vote-for-the-war crib notes, Congressman Kucinich, and Hillary Clinton can just put her universal health care stump speech back in her pocket. How did the candidates fare on this low-key, high-concept debate? Richard Wolffe, the senior White House correspondent for Newsweek, was there at the debate.

Hi, Richard.

Mr. RICHARD WOLFFE (Senior White House Correspondent, Newsweek): Good morning.

STEWART: So who did this debate format favor the most, do you think? Which of the candidates really took to it?

Mr. WOLFFE: Well, you know, I hate to say this, but Kucinich still had his best lines out there about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFFE: …he never voted for the war. And he jumped in it at every point. And Mike Gravel, I'm afraid, still sounded like he's the kind of uncle you want to leave in a closet. But the other candidates - look, this format was much more substantive - not just because it had the mellifluous voices of Michele Norris and Robert Siegel and Steve Inskeep in there, but the candidates really engaged on the subject matter in hand and at length. And so I would say all the mainstream candidates did pretty well.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about the three topics. We started with Iran and the just revealed information of the intelligence community that Iran likely not pursuing nuclear weapons at this time. It was interesting that NPR actually chose this subject and then its news of the day came out. Who - which candidate used this to their advantage the most?

Mr. WOLFFE: Well, look. Hillary Clinton came very well-prepared, as she has in all of her debates - but came very well-prepared on this subject. But it is, by far and away, the toughest subject for her to deal with: A, because she's the only candidate in the field to have voted for that Senate resolution against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and B, because it's really complex. And even within the confines of a very civilized NPR debate, it doesn't look good because people don't know which way is up, which way is down. They just know that the Bush administration's policy on Iran kind of looks foolish now because of that NIE.

STEWART: Let's listen to Senator Clinton, defending her vote earlier this year on that Kyl-Lieberman Amendment about Iran.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): The Iranians were supplying weapons that killed Americans. They were supplying technical assistance from the Quds Force, which is their special operations element. So I think we've actually seen the positive effects of having labeled them a terrorist organization, because it did change their behavior.

STEWART: I'm wondering, were you - could you actually see the candidates during the debate?

Mr. WOLFFE: No, we could not.


Mr. WOLFFE: We've got a couple of still photos, but we could not see their responses. And we - what I really would have liked to have seen is Hillary Clinton's face when Joe Biden came in with a pretty firm smack down to that assertion that her resolution actually worked.

STEWART: Let's move on to China. It was the next subject, and it prompted this pre-holiday moment of levity in what was otherwise a somewhat straightforward debate.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democrat Senator, North Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): My kids will not have toys coming from China.

Senator CHRISTOPHER DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Barack and I would like to comment on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. DODD: My toys are coming from Iowa. I'm buying Iowa toys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. DODD: We're going to eat Iowa food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That discussion was about whether or not you're going to buy your toys from China. John Edwards, Chris Dodd in there, still saying - it was interesting that they still played to Iowa, even though they had just three big, big - capital B - topics. They have not forgotten the caucus.

Mr. WOLFFE: You can never pander too much in Iowa. I mean, they're giving their kids ethanol in their apple juice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WOLFFE: You know, the pandering doesn't stop at any point in time here. And, you know, the debate was co-sponsored by Iowa Public Radio. Look, the national audience is a great thing, and they all want to be on NPR. But really, what matters right now is reaching that 150,000 people who may brave the cold to show up to caucus in less than a month.

STEWART: Now, beyond the it's-going-to-hurt-our-kids-to-have-toys-from-China narrative, as you mentioned, Dennis Kucinich got in there and brought up the Iraq war.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio): You know, I'm maybe the only one up here who actually voted against China trade because of concerns I had that the U.S. was not going to be able to maintain its manufacturing base, which is central to maintaining the middle class. What we've seen is that without solid trade policies, we're undermined. Without a strength-through-peace doctrine of rejecting war as an instrument of policy, we're going to keep borrowing money from China. Let us not forget, we're borrowing money from China to finance the war in Iraq.

STEWART: What did you think about the inclusion of - and the amount of time given to Dennis Kucinich and to Mike Gravel? He got a fair amount of mic time. Chris Dodd got an opportunity to speak a lot more than he has in the past. Usually it's Clinton, Obama, Edwards - Clinton, Obama, Edwards.

Mr. WOLFFE: No, it was very sad. But look, there are a couple of interesting things that struck me as I was listening to this. One, I can hear the words Kucinich administration many, many times, and it still doesn't make any sense then. And two, isn't it interesting how - look, think what you like about Kucinich and UFOs, but basically, his positions, this party, this Democratic field has essentially moved to the Kucinich position on trade, on Iraq, on a whole range of things where people thought he was a real outlier.

I mean, even I used the phrase at the start of this as about mainstream candidates. But, essentially, they're all pretty much in an agreement now when it comes to some of these big issues like trade, like diplomacy and war. And they are where Dennis Kucinich is.

STEWART: Let's finally - they talked about immigration. Michele Norris of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, she tried three times to pin down John Edwards on one immigration question. Let's listen.

MICHELE NORRIS: What rights do immigrants have if they're working without proper authorization?

Mr. EDWARDS: Well, the answer to this is not a short-term solution. The answer to this is comprehensive immigration reform. But we…

NORRIS: But until you get to that point. What…

Mr. EDWARDS: But until we get to that…

NORRIS: …if workers don't have proper identification, proper authorization, what rights would they have under your administration?

Mr. EDWARDS: There's - they're in a very vulnerable position. We have agricultural workers who are being taken advantage of and abused, and in many cases living in horrid, horrid conditions. And so that this is…

NORRIS: Senator, let's try one more time. How would you, quote, "take care" of what rights would they have?

Mr. EDWARDS: What we would do is we'd use the power of the federal government and the power of our regulatory agencies to ensure that these people are not being abused.

STEWART: So Richard, why was that question so difficult for John Edwards to answer directly?

Mr. WOLFFE: Isn't it fascinating? I mean, nice try, Michele. But all of these candidates have struggled with the issue of immigration. Why? Well, they're obviously looking at a different set of polls from anyone else, because Democrats, in fact, the general population still doesn't rank immigration as that high. But, look. When you go out on the trail - at least anecdotally -there are lots of Democrats - especially in a place like Iowa - who say we don't like this way this wave of immigration. We think there are illegals everywhere. And, again, even among Democrats, again, it may be anecdotal, but these candidates are running a bit scared of the immigration issue. They know that Republicans are where they're at. They don't want to go there. But what the Democrats actually stand for on immigration, that still has not been defined.

STEWART: And finally, whatever your answer is, I promise that we'll have you back on this program. What did you think about the NPR setup of the debate? No audience, three topics, no camera. Was it effective, or was it like being forced to eat your broccoli sometimes?

Mr. WOLFFE: Well, a number of my unfavorable friends in the press corps said it was a little bit sleepy. I'm and then (unintelligible)…


That's it. You're dead to us, Wolffe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: That was a setup, and you failed.

Mr. WOLFFE: I'm - but NPR - I just say they said it, not me. I don't want you to smear me with other people's attacks. But I thought it was a good thing that it was less caffeinated than anyone else.

STEWART: Now, you tell that David Gregory to pipe down, and that Mark Halperin. We know where they're from.

Richard Wolffe, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WOLFFE: Anytime.

STEWART: Richard is the senior White House correspondent for Newsweek.

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