The war in Iraq, the economy, health care and education policy highlighted a gathering of all nine 2004 Democratic presidential candidates Wednesday night.
Though the candidates were split on the war, all agreed attacking the ailing economy and the Bush tax cut plan was their best opportunity to take back the White House in 2004. The forum, held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, was sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund.
Children’s Defense Fund President Marian Wright Edelman opened the event with strong words of disapproval for Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative. She bashed the program, saying Bush’s tax cut plan does not leave enough federal money to fulfill his promises to the children of America.
Before handing the stage over to the debate’s moderator, CNN’s Judy Woodruff, Edelman urged the Democratic candidates to reverse Bush’s tax cuts and give “new voices for new choices” to the children of America.
Woodruff was joined by a panel of three media representatives who grilled the candidates for more than two hours in a series of one- and two-minute lightning rounds. Each candidate was given one minute for an opening statement, which gave each the opportunity to differentiate his promises to America.
Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, used his opening statement to criticize the “No Child Left Behind” plan and referred to it as the “No School Left Standing Bill.” He also reiterated his anti-war stance, saying the country could not go to war “without losing our American values.”
Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) also reaffirmed his decision to vote against the war. He argued America needs more “clarity of action” in Iraq and that it is more important to eliminate tax cuts affecting the welfare of children.
Defending his stance, Graham made reference to analyst estimates that the war may cost taxpayers in excess of $200 billion.
“Going to war (ensures) our children will be paying the huge debt left as a result of the war,” he said.
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.), along with Rev. Al Sharpton (N.Y.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), rounded out the five candidates at the forum who voted against military action in Iraq in November.
Child poverty was a major issue in the evening’s debate, and the candidates all agreed action must be taken to quell the problem.
Braun argued the importance of the Children’s Defense Fund’s attempt to give the 13 million impoverished American children a voice in Congress. Emphasizing the need for Democrats to fight for younger generations, she proclaimed, “How we deal with children now represents how our generation fights for the future of America.”
Kucinich received an outburst of applause from the audience when he said the Bush administration should be more concerned with “poverty as a weapon of mass destruction” than with Saddam’s threat.
Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and John Edwards (N.C.) both voted in favor of military action but expressed reservations about priorities following the conflict.
“America needs to put our power here at home to liberate our own children … We need to make ‘leave no child behind’ mean something,” Kerry said.
Edwards said he stood behind the cause to liberate the Iraqi people but added, “America should lead in a way that brings others to us, not pushes them away.”
A number of the candidates expressed concern about the diminishing value that some Americans are placing on family life and called upon all Americans to make time to spend with their families.
Former vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), who is running for the top seat this election, stressed the importance of the family. He said getting rid of disincentives to be married and getting fathers more involved in the welfare of their children is an imperative step toward the success of younger generations.
“A strong family is as important (to the future of the country) as anything the government will do,” he said.
All nine candidates agreed developing plans for universal health care and education and defending affirmative action would be top priorities for the Democrats in reclaiming control of the White House. Each said he plans to overturn the Bush tax cuts in order to pay for his proposals.
Edwards offered a plan to give families a $2,500 tax credit per child to give every student a chance to go to college, while Dean said that instead of spending $200 billion on the war, America could insure every child under the age of 18.
Working to create incentive for college students to become teachers, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) said he plans to develop “Teacher ROTC,” a program that would help future teachers pay for five years of college. In an interview after the debate, Gephardt said he would beat President Bush in 2004 with “bold new ideas, ideas that are feasible,” including universal health care and “Teacher ROTC.”
Both Kerry and Sharpton were adamant about the importance of maintaining affirmative action at both the academic and professional level. Kerry called the fight over affirmative action “the greatest unresolved issue in our country,” while Sharpton said if the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan in a case concerning its admissions policies, it “better prepare for a rematch.” Michigan is attempting to defend its right to use affirmative action in admissions before the Court.
Though the primaries are more than nine months away, all the candidates were confident in their ability to win back the White House. But, they said, it would be contingent upon their ability to inspire constituents to vote.
Dean said the party was “going to work hard to give young people a reason to vote in this country.”
Kucinich stressed the importance of the Democrats separating their agenda from Republicans’, saying, “the people will show up when the Democratic Party shows up.”
Donna Brazile, former manager of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said in an interview after the event that the Democrats could win in 2004 by “completing a simple electoral recipe.”
“All we would have to do is win the 20 states we always win; plus we need to get Kucinich’s, Edwards’, Graham’s and Gephardt’s (states),” she said. “If we can mix all that together, you bet we can win.”