Democrats Control the Hill, but Not Themselves

At a Democratic summit, Hillary Clinton and the other five candidates flouted the rules Howard Dean spelled out.
At a Democratic summit, Hillary Clinton and the other five candidates flouted the rules Howard Dean spelled out. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Saturday, February 3, 2007

Yesterday was the first cattle call of the Democratic presidential campaign and -- holy cow! -- these candidates can moo.

"Each candidate has been given seven minutes to speak," announced Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean before the first of six Democratic candidates took the stage at the Hilton Washington. He further announced that an "official timekeeper" will hold up warning and "time's up" signs. "After 10 minutes, wild gesticulations will take place," he threatened.

This quaint exercise in Democratic Party discipline lasted about, well, seven minutes. The first candidate, Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), took the floor for 20 minutes and 15 seconds, ignoring Dean's hovering, the removal of Dodd's image from the projection screens, and the fact that he drew applause for saying "Let me conclude." Former senator John Edwards (17:40) wasn't far behind, trailed by Sens. Hillary Clinton (16:12) and Barack Obama (15:30).

The closest to the limit was Rep. Dennis Kucinich (12:38), but this was probably because the audience treated his appearance as a chance to start conversations or to visit the restrooms. "Can you hear me in the back?" Kucinich called above the din. "Because I can hear you."

Now in control of Congress, Democrats were eager to demonstrate that they could make the trains run on time yesterday. They started the proceedings with an ROTC color guard. And Dean sternly read out the ground rules. "Each candidate was given the opportunity to play 30 seconds of music and can have up to 100 campaign signs evenly placed around the room."

But the Democratic National Committee is not exactly a precision drill team. The first speaker, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, wasn't ready when his time came to speak. Clinton, for her part, showed flagrant disregard for Dean's sign restrictions; her supporters hoisted about 300. And although most candidates chose the usual favorites for their theme music ("Our Country," "America the Beautiful"), Dodd went with the Temptations:

If you want to play hide and seek with love let me remind you (It's all right)

The lovin' you're gonna miss in the time it takes to find you. (It's outta sight)

But even in the confusion, the candidates found ways to establish a pecking order. Obama, rock star of the pack, got nearly a minute and a half of applause, leaving Edwards in the dust with just 30 seconds. Kucinich, who unintentionally drew laughter when he referred to 2009 and "my inauguration as president," used his brief moments on the stage to mention his third wife, Elizabeth -- seven times.

Reid, though not technically under the seven-minute rule, opened the proceedings with a poor example. After a 10-minute speech, Reid said "Thank you very much" and earned a lengthy standing ovation. But to the surprise of many in the hall, Reid remained at the lectern. "I want to talk a little bit about the West," he announced, rambling on for eight more minutes.

Four years ago at another DNC winter meeting, Dean's presidential ambitions soared with his famous claim to represent the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Yesterday, the remarks were more lengthy than lofty.

Dodd, in his Phil Donohue hairdo, opened by noting that "sometimes, the introductions go on longer than my remarks." Not this time. He went on about Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt and his 2-year-old daughter. At 10 minutes, he offered what could have been a rousing finale: "We're not going to take fear for an answer any longer in America."

During the applause, Dean stood up and attempted to reclaim the microphone. But Dodd wouldn't budge. As the timekeeper raised the red "TIME" sign repeatedly over the next 10 minutes, Dodd quickened his pace and added phrases such as "Let me also add here quickly."

Obama, next up, was already two minutes over his time when he proclaimed, "We don't have time to be cynical." By 13 minutes, he seemed to have tired himself out, for he announced that candidates should put forward their Iraq plans in "clear, unambiguous, uncertain terms."

Retired Gen. Wes Clark, who turned in a respectable time of 13:35, gave the impression that somebody had told him he had been insufficiently emotional. "It feels great," he announced. Also: "I feel that pain." And: "Makes me sad. But also, I get impassioned. To be honest with you, I get a little bit angry." And, finally: "We must also be strong."

Edwards must have thought he said "long." Two minutes over his time limit, Edwards stated his already-obvious view that "silence is betrayal." Four minutes over time, Edwards announced that "we cannot walk away" -- then remained planted for several more minutes.

After the Kucinich intermission, Clinton greeted the crowd with an announcement: "I'm here to start a conversation with our country." A couple of audience members took that offer seriously, and, eight minutes into Clinton's speech, began heckling her about Iraq. This made Clinton's speech louder, not shorter. "I've been fighting for more than 35 years," she said after talking for more than 13 minutes.

The timekeeper stood up and raised the red sign. Dean rose from his chair and stood at Clinton's shoulder. The candidate, having used 230 percent of her allotted time, surrendered the microphone.


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