The Demo Derby

George Stephanopoulos: Sen. Kerry ... earlier this week, your campaign questioned whether or not Gov. Dean was fit to be commander in chief. Do you think he's fit?

John Kerry: I think Gov. Dean made a statement which I found quite extraordinary, and I still do. He said that America has to prepare for the day when we will not be the strongest military in the world. I mean, that's his statement. I didn't make it up; he said it.

-- from the Democrats' South Carolina debate, May 3, 2003

If you saw that debacle of a debate, you watched moderator George Stephanopoulos bait the Democratic field into attacking one another. Not that most of them needed much baiting, having been sniping either directly or through staff efforts all spring.

Here is the debate we should have seen:

Stephanopoulos: Rep. Gephardt, Sen. Edwards called your health plan a trillion-dollar giveaway to corporations. How do you reply?

Dick Gephardt: Well, George, I've proposed giving tax credits to corporations to buy health insurance for their employees. The voters can decide whether that's the best approach. I obviously think it is. But we Democrats are not here to whack one another. John Edwards is a tremendous asset to the Senate. Everyone at this debate has more in common with one another than any of us has with George W. Bush, who is the most dangerous and deceptive president in the history of the Republic, beginning with the way he assumed office. Any of the Democrats' health plans is better than the Bush plan, which is a complete sellout to the HMOs and drug industries.

Stephanopoulos: Sen. Edwards?

John Edwards: Sorry, George, but I'm not going to play this game, either. Rep. Gephardt and I each have our strategies for improving people's health security. The voters will make up their minds about which is the best. I would proceed more gradually, with a less costly plan. But President Bush wants to privatize Medicare, leaving older Americans to the tender mercies of greedy HMOs whose main interest is in avoiding sick people.

Stephanopoulos: Gov. Dean, you and Sen. Kerry both need to win the New Hampshire primary. If one of you beats the other handily, the loser is probably finished. You have accused Sen. Kerry of waffling on whether he supported the president's Iraq policy. Can you tell us why people should choose you over Sen. Kerry?

Howard Dean: No, George. I won't. But I will tell you why people should choose me over George W. Bush. Some of us opposed the Iraq War and some of us supported it. But all of us believe what President Bush is doing in Iraq now is a travesty. His administration was so eager to rush to war, based on phony evidence, that it didn't give serious thought to the aftermath. All of us think that he's playing roulette with nuclear weapons. The world is a more dangerous place as a result of Bush's adventures and his failure to take homeland security seriously.

Stephanopoulos: Sen. Kerry?

Kerry: You know, George, the nine of us are here to audition for the important job of challenging a reckless, dangerous, untrustworthy president who never should have taken office. We're not here to disparage one another. Everyone at this table is a good Democrat and a great public servant. Any of us would make a more effective president than George W. Bush. Any of us would make America a safer place. In the next year, Democratic voters will have plenty of time to decide which of us is the best equipped to avenge the stolen election of 2000. But we are not going to make George W. Bush's job easier by throwing mud at one another.

You get the idea. The next year of Democratic candidates' debates can either be a demolition derby for the amusement of Karl Rove or a year of free television time to hone the Democrats' case against the Bush presidency.

Game theorists famously describe a "prisoners' dilemma" in which everyone would be better off if all involved cooperated, but each prisoner in isolation maximizes his personal advantage by betraying the others. The Democratic debates amount to a partisan prisoners' dilemma: The whole field would be better off if everyone turned their fire only on President Bush, but they can't resist attacking one another.

Ronald Reagan, back in 1966, called for a Republican Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." If even one candidate began speaking in the spirit of the dialogue above, maybe the others would be shamed into reciprocating.

Amid their frenzy to raise candidate money, the Democrats might also find some funds for generic advertising -- now -- on what the Republicans are doing to the country and about Bush's penchant for chronic deception, whether the issue is education, taxes, health care or war. That would also improve the prospects of the eventual nominee.

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