On a day when television networks were airing scenes of celebration in downtown Baghdad, the Democratic presidential candidates sharply disagreed with one another over the wisdom of President Bush's decision to launch the war.
All nine candidates shared the stage for the first time last night at a forum hosted by the Children's Defense Fund and continued a debate over Iraq that has split the party, with four defending their votes in favor of the war and five opponents questioning whether the war was necessary or justified.
The candidates, however, showed broad agreement over domestic priorities, promising the audience of children's advocates and a morning meeting of organized labor that they would repeal some or all of Bush's tax cuts and redirect the money to spend it on education and health care. The Democrats also agreed that, if the Supreme Court rules that affirmative action is unconstitutional, they would seek legislative and judicial remedies to reverse that decision.
For two hours last night, the candidates fielded questions from a panel of four journalists, and while the main topic of the forum was children, the opening question went to the news of the day. Did they have a different view of the war now than when they stated their support or opposition prior to the conflict's beginning?
Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), John Edwards (N.C.), John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) reaffirmed their support. Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (Ohio), former senator Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) and Al Sharpton said the fall of Baghdad had not changed their minds.
"History teaches us that if you leave a brutal, immoral dictator with weapons of mass destruction, eventually he will use them," Lieberman said. "And all of our liberty . . . will be compromised."
Gephardt said he supported the war to prevent a recurrence of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "We have to do what we have to do to defend the security of our people."
Edwards called the war a "just cause" but said it is crucial to show "we went there for the right reason" and called for turning Iraq back to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible.
Graham took issue with the views of Gephardt and Lieberman by saying, "War in Iraq has reduced our ability to carry out the war against terrorism."
Dean, whose candidacy has gained support for his strong opposition to the war, was grudging about the success of U.S. and British forces in Iraq. "We've gotten rid of him. I suppose that's a good thing," he said, referring to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But he said the money spent on reconstruction in Iraq would be better spent at home.
Braun and Kucinich agreed with those priorities, with Kucinich saying rather than "blowing up bridges" over the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the federal government should be building bridges in American cities. Braun said, "If we spend $80 billion to kill Saddam Hussein, that's $79 billion too much."
Kerry sided with opponents and supporters, saying, "I support the use of force, I support disarming Saddam Hussein, but I've been very critical of the way this administration went at it."
On domestic issues, the candidates responded enthusiastically to opening remarks by the organization's president, Marian Wright Edelman, who called for a sharp reversal in Bush's policies and a significant increase in federal support for children's programs.
The candidates accused Bush of hypocrisy in pushing an education reform plan entitled "No Child Left Behind" and then not providing states with enough money to fully fund it. Kerry accused Bush of "making a mockery of those words."
"It is cynical; they never meant it," Gephardt said of the administration's education pledge.
The candidates were equally passionate in their pledges to expand health care coverage to the 40 million Americans without insurance. Several called for universal coverage through expansion of the children's health insurance program, reforms of Medicare and Medicaid and tax incentives to business to provide coverage for all employees.
Asked what, as president, they would do if the Supreme Court rules against the University of Michigan in the pending affirmative action case, the Democrats said they would either seek to pass legislation making affirmative action the law of the land or take actions through executive orders or other means to force a new court case.
"If I'm president, the justices can prepare for a rematch," Sharpton said.
Edwards defended Democrats against charges that they lack public confidence on defense and other issues. "They will hear the case about what George W. Bush has failed to do, what he has failed to do here in this country, what he has failed to do abroad. It is a powerful case," he said. "I was a lawyer for 20 years before I was elected to the United States Senate. This is the easiest case I ever had to argue."
Also yesterday, Gephardt received the endorsement of the 135,000-member Iron Workers union, the first entity of organized labor to announce its support for any of the Democrats. The AFL-CIO will not attempt to endorse a candidate until later this year, but may not be able to muster the necessary two-thirds support among it membership to back anyone.