The GE Presidential Debate

By David Swanson

MSNBC, owned by weapons-maker General Electric, opened Thursday night’s debate with the unavoidable topic of Iraq, and unavoidably allowed each of the eight candidates on the stage to address it. Two of them, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Senator Mike Gravel, spoke in favor of ending the war. Kucinich advocated cutting off the funding. Gravel proposed passing a law to make it a felony to remain in Iraq.

Of course, it’s also a felony to spy in violation of FISA, to mislead Congress into war, to expose an undercover agent, etc., etc. And, of course, Bush and Cheney can find money at the Pentagon to continue an unfunded war. But Kucinich and Gravel were serious about trying to rein in this White House. The other six Democrats on the stage Thursday night (Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards) made clear that they oppose serious steps to force a swift end to the war. They would prefer to end the war as president, regardless of who has to die in the meantime, and heedless of the failure of such waffling to win elections in the past.

GE spokesman Brian Williams directed the debate and turned it next to scandal questions, asking each candidate a different question about some accusation of wrong doing. Most of the candidates blatantly refused to answer the questions and simply changed the subject. Asked if he could be trusted not to make regrettable comments, Biden gave the one-word answer “Yes.”

Amazingly, Williams could come up with nothing to accuse Kucinich of. “You were against the war before being anti-war was popular,” he said. “Why do you think you don’t have more traction?” Kucinich gave an optimistic response on gaining traction. He may very well be right that he is gaining traction. But I wonder if his answer would have been different had this question come at the end of the debate, because Williams answered his own question by proceeding with much of the debate as if Kucinich and Gravel were not on the stage.

One factor that may have encouraged GE in this, at least in the extreme nature of the imbalance it pursued, may have been that Gravel, an alumnus of Camp Democracy [ ] took his turn on the scandals questions and simply kicked ass. He said he was embarrassed by the current Congress and that some of the candidates scared him, especially by their refusal to oppose any nuclear attack on Iran. Gravel did not quite fill the role of Al Sharpton in last season’s debates, but he appeared to speak with great off-the-cuff uncalculated honesty, putting the pro-war candidates in their place. GE immediately put him in his, and when he got a chance to speak much later he said he was beginning to feel like a potted plant on stage.

The next series of questions were about domestic policy, and focused largely on divisive issues like abortion. GE skipped Kucinich and Gravel. Then came health care question, which skipped Kucinich and Gravel. Clinton, who throughout the debate seemed the most ill at ease and the most unwilling to say anything substantive, gave an interesting account of her failed effort at health care reform as first lady. She said that people originally supported her plan, but that their view of it soured after she’d let the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical companies work on it. From this, as from her vote for the Iraq War, she drew no lessons. She would again allow the insurance companies to continue to exist and to draft her plan, but she would go into the process with more pessimism. (You and the rest of us, Hillary!)

GE next asked each Democrat what the worst mistake was they’d ever made. This was not terribly enlightening, except perhaps by comparison to the upcoming Republican debate in which GE will likely ask the candidates what the worst mistakes are that Democrats have ever made.

Then candidates got a variety of different issue questions, including right-wing phrasing like “illegal aliens.” In this round, former Senator Edwards was asked to criticize oil companies’ profiteering and refused. Gravel was skipped. And Kucinich was finally called on, about health care. He was given about 20 seconds but nailed it. The plan that he and Congressman John Conyers have put forward for single-payer health care cuts through all of the bluster and bombast (to use an Obama phrase) of the other candidates, who have by now reached the point of warning each other that their band aids won’t repair severed limbs.

Next came a series of questions about “non-Iraq foreign policy.” Obama was asked to name three allies and only got to two (Europe and Japan) before proposing to use the military to relate well to China. Williams accused Obama of having said that the Palestinian people are suffering, and Obama assured him that he meant they were only suffering from their own leaders’ failures and that Israel is not to blame.

This time around, Kucinich was skipped but Gravel was called on. GE asked him to name three enemies. He replied that it was absurd to think we had any enemies while we spend as much on our military as all other nations combined. “Who are you afraid of, Brian?” he asked the nearest representative of the military industrial complex, which he accused of running not only the government, but also “our culture.”

Williams asked the candidates to raise their hands if they believed there was such a thing as a “global war on terror.” Kucinich’s hand was one of the few or the only one (’s video does not do as well as its audio, so I couldn’t see) not raised, so Williams asked him to explain. He said that the phrase “global war on terror” has been used as a pretext for aggressive war. Kucinich then went back and answered one of the questions he’d been skipped on – that of enemies and allies – and concluded by putting at the top of his agenda brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace in an even-handed manner.

Kucinich got to answer one other question as well. Williams asked which candidates supported impeaching Dick Cheney. Kucinich’s hand was the only one, or one of the few, raised (again, I couldn’t see, but I’m guessing Gravel raised his hand too). Kucinich raised a copy of the Constitution and spoke of his duty to uphold it. He said that the country had been taken into war on the basis of lies, and that the administration was threatening to do the same on Iran. Sadly, the audience had been strictly forbidden to applaud during the debate. (GE claims to ban clapping to save time, but it would save more time by turning off Richardson’s microphone each time he runs over his assigned time limit just clearing his throat. And the debates would be better to watch if some segment of the public were involved.) There was no ban on applause at an event where Kucinich spoke the day before. Here’s video:

Then several candidates got new random questions: gay marriage, Cuba, the climate. Even Gravel got a question, on nuclear energy. Kucinich, who was skipped, raised his hand during Obama’s turn to challenge the Illinois Senator on his refusal to oppose nuking Iran. Gravel jumped into the exchange as well. But Obama refused to take the option of aggressively nuking another nation off the table.

And that was it, until the post-debate spin room. GE did not ask about the budget or wages or the right to organize. There were, quite stunningly, no questions about which of the new presidential powers these candidates would use if elected. Would you, as president, spy on your political opponents without court warrants? Would you detain people without charge? Would you use any secret prisons? Would you torture? Would you disobey laws? Which ones? Would you announce your intentions in “signing statements”? Would you engage in any aggressive wars? Would you launch any wars not declared by Congress? Would you ever intentionally mislead Congress? Would you lie to the public about matters as grave as hurricanes, wars, and spying? None of these topics came up.

Plenty of accusations against Democrats did arise. Why, Williams wanted to know, are Democrats labeled as less able to protect us? Well, they aren’t in polls, but they are by weapons makers. Williams asked what these candidates would do in response to an event like 9/11, but he didn’t ask that simple question. He asked how they would use the military overseas to respond to an attack like 9-11. The candidates who got that question did not challenge its unstated assumptions. Clinton, in particular, sounded exactly like Bush. And Biden, who was not asked this question but jumped in to answer it later, sounded worse.


David Swanson is the Washington Director of and co-founder of the coalition, a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, and of the Backbone Campaign. He serves on a working group of United for Peace and Justice. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. His website is In April 2007, Swanson began consulting part-time for Kucinich for President 2008.

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