WASHINGTON – The Democratic presidential candidates took President Bush to task Tuesday, chiding him for creating, among other things, a quagmire in Iraq, a police state at home, a disenfranchised Florida and a health care crisis in America.
The depiction of the president as the root of all evil began at the top of Tuesday night's debate, in which the candidates complained that Bush's rush to war in Iraq had distracted America from the real threat of terrorism.
"Where is bin Laden?" candidate Al Sharpton (search) asked in response to the lead-off question posed by National Public Radio national correspondent and Fox News contributor Juan Williams, one of three panelists questioning the nine candidates.
"This guy has out more videos than a rock star, but George Bush's intelligence agencies can't find him," Sharpton said of the Al Qaeda (search) terrorist leader.
"This was a mistake this war, and the president got us into it, and now we're going to have to get out of it," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who added that walking away now would leave the United States facing a greater threat of terrorism than when Saddam Hussein was president.
"When you consider the fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 ... I think that the attack in Iraq was a foregone conclusion after 9/11 even though they had nothing to do with it," said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search), who earned applause when he told the crowd that he voted against the war in Iraq.
"This administration did not have to go to war against Iraq, there are no weapons of mass destruction [that] have been found, and [Bush] basically misrepresented the case to the American people," Kucinich said.
Tuesday's debate was co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (search) and Fox News Channel, on which it aired live. The debate was the first of two being co-sponsored by CBCI and Fox News. The second debate will be held on Oct. 26 in Detroit.
Brit Hume, host of "Special Report With Brit Hume," the channel's premier political news show, moderated the event.
The debate was taking place at Morgan State University (search) in Baltimore, Md., a historically black college where Williams, Ed Gordon, managing editor of Black Entertainment Television, and Farai Chideya, author and former ABC correspondent, asked questions on domestic policy and of ongoing concern to black America.
Among the first questions asked was whether any of the candidates would pull troops out of Iraq.
Most sentiments leaned toward continuing commitment of the troops as long as an international force participated in the security of that nation.
"This is a battle in the war on terrorism. Failure and defeat is not an option," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search), who added that he would be willing to send in more U.S. troops if they were needed to protect the contingent already there and an international force was months away.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) said an international force is needed to relieve the burden on U.S. troops in Iraq and taxpayers at home and to reduce anti-American sentiment on the ground.
"We need to lead in a way that brings others to us and brings respect for America, because at the end of the day, we'll be safer in a world where America is looked up to and respected," Edwards said.
Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (search) took a different approach, saying the problem in Iraq was caused when the Congress "abdicated" its responsibility by handing over to the president authority to declare war. She added Bush took that authority and "frittered away" relationships with allies.
The candidates also said the president rushed toward war without planning for the peace.
"It's an act of negligence of remarkable proportions because this president started this war on his schedule," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), who said that no more U.S. troops should be sent there.
"When I am president, if [Bush] hasn't already, I will get the help we need, I will preserve the alliances" that Democratic and Republican presidents have counted on for 70 years, said Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), who repeated his frequently used phrase for the president as "a miserable failure."
Kucinich said getting the U.S. out of Iraq could be achieved if the U.N. were left to handle collection and distribution of oil revenues, contracts for reconstruction and circumstances for creating an Iraqi government.
Sharpton said the president was acting like a "gang member" and a "bully" by going to war in Iraq. He also chastised Congress for allowing the president to go to war without insisting on an exit strategy.
Bush requested in a national address on Sunday night that Congress provide $87 billion in fiscal year 2004 for the war on terror, including $66 billion for military functions in Iraq and Afghanistan and $21 billion for reconstruction. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pledged to approve the money, though they want to hear the president's plan first.
"Well, I am glad the president finally found an economic development program, I am just sad it is in Baghdad," Kerry said, adding that the U.S. must cede humanitarian and civilian authority to U.N. members.
The candidates who are members of Congress were asked whether they would vote for the president's $87 billion plan. Lieberman said he would support it in order to bring troops home, but he called the president's request a "price tag not a plan."
Edwards and Sen. Bob Graham (search) of Florida said they want to make sure the money doesn't go to "no-bid contracts" by friends of the administration, including Halliburton, the company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
"I will support whatever is required to protect our brave men and women in Iraq. I will not support a dime to protect the profits of Halliburton in Iraq," said Graham, who opposed the war in Iraq and called it a "distraction" from the war on terror in Afghanistan, Yemen and other places.
Kucinich said he would oppose the president's plan.
"Hell no," he said. "The U.N. in and the U.S. out."
About 20 minutes into the debate, a spectator in the audience began shouting, disrupting Graham, who was explaining why he voted against the war in Iraq.
After a few minutes of the screaming disruption, Sharpton interrupted to broad laughter, saying, "Y'all don't get to the Black Caucus debate and start acting up now."
However, after the second disruption in which a protester screamed in support of perennial candidate Lyndon LaRouche, candidates registered frustration on their faces.
Sharpton again retorted to the audience: "Will you all respect our right to be heard like we have respected everybody else."
Several outbursts later, Sharpton said that if security there could not contain the room, members of his National Action Network would.
On the Middle East, Dean was asked to defend an earlier statement in which he said the United States should not take sides in the issue between Palestinians and Israelis and Israel should dismantle settlements.
Dean said his comments have been misinterpreted and what he meant is that to be a credible negotiator, the U.S. has to be trusted by both sides and must not ignore the conflict the way Bush did in his first 18 months of his term.
Dean added that his positions mirror those of former President Bill Clinton.
But Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, said Dean was suggesting that as president, he would change U.S. policy.
"Howard Dean's statements break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republican and Democrat, members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel based on shared values and common strategic interests," Lieberman said.
"Israel is the one country in the region that we can rely on today, tomorrow, 10, 50 years from now to stand with America in a time of crisis," Lieberman said. "We do not gain strength as a negotiator if we compromise our support of Israel."
Domestic Issues Center on Jobs, Health Care, Cultural Problems
Candidates offered their views on foreign policy, domestic policy and issues critical to the black community. They were each given one minute to answer questions offered by the panelists and 30 seconds to respond when they were criticized by another candidate.
Doug Thornell, CBC spokesman, said before the debate that while "African-Americans are disproportionately affected by the downturn of the economy," many of the issues that will be addressed are "major concerns in everyone’s community."
Asked about the U.S. economy, the candidates prioritized jobs and health care, again criticizing Bush.
"Here's a man who just asked for billions of dollars on Sunday night while we have record state deficits," Sharpton said, complaining that Bush is more interested in educating students abroad than students at home.
"How many Americans have to lose their jobs before George Bush loses his?" Gephardt asked, adding that Bush "only has one idea in his head -- tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans followed by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans followed by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans."
Referring back to his run as the 2000 vice presidential candidate, Lieberman said, "No community has suffered more from the fiscal irresponsibility of George W. Bush than the African-American community.
"It began even before he was president in the denial his team carried out in Florida for African-American voters who were trying to go to the polls to elect Al Gore and me," he said. "It's time for new leadership and we can do it by cutting back on those tax [cuts] for the wealthy and protecting the taxes for the middle class, investing in America's future together."
Gephardt said his plan would be to repeal the tax cuts to pay for health care for all Americans that "can never be taken away from them."
Kucinich said the only way to restore the strength of the American worker is to take health care out of the for-profit realm. Edwards echoed a similar sentiment, saying lowering the high costs of health care is the only way to ensure everyone gets it.
Responding to the disproportionate incarceration of black drug abusers compared to white abusers, who are a much larger fraction of drug users, Kucinich said his health plan would make sure that drug users are given treatment over incarceration. He also said that as president he would seek to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences.
In terms of civil liberties, Edwards said he would support "dramatic revision" of the Patriot Act, the law passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that makes it easier for law enforcement to surveil terror suspects.
"These very liberties, this privacy, these constitutional rights, that's what's at stake in this fight and we cannot let people like John Ashcroft take them away in an effort to protect ourselves."
Braun and Kucinich said they would go further than revising the Patriot Act, they would roll it back altogether.
Asked about gay marriage, Graham said he would support domestic partnerships but would not support marriage between homosexuals.
"I believe that marriage is an institution established by marriage, culture and law for a man and a woman for the principal purpose of being nurturing of children," Graham said.
Candidates Appeal to African-American Voters
On race relations, Lieberman said he walked with Martin Luther King Jr., 40 years ago and would walk with his spirit while in the Oval Office.
Dean, who has taken issue with questions about his appeal to minority voters, was asked whether he could address the African-American community's needs since he represented a predominantly white state.
"If the percent of minorities that are in your state has anything to do with how you can connect with African-American voters, then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King," Dean replied, referring to the former Senate majority leader who was ousted over remarks suggesting he applauded the late Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential platform.
Dean, who answered that hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean performs his favorite song, also said America needs to continue with affirmative action programs because of the built-in bias employers, who are primarily white, have against people who don't look like themselves.
While Braun said that she would support gun controls, Dean said that he doesn't think gun control laws that are applied in urban communities where gun crimes are higher should be applied in rural states like Vermont where gun crimes are low.
Edwards said he opposed school vouchers, adding that public schools allow the have-nots, disproportionately minority students, access to a decent education. He said he would increase pay for teachers and make higher education available to everyone.
Kerry said the school system is separate and unequal, and added that Bush has not funded the No Child Left Behind initiative that aims to raise standards.
"Until the federal government is prepared to make up the difference in funding, we do not have a prayer of making real the full promise of our country," Kerry, who would propose funding for after-school programs, special education and teacher salaries, said.
He added that vouchers are an illusion because they help 50 kids "at the expense of 4,000."
Blacks have traditionally been strong supporters of the Democratic Party. In 2000, Bush won just 9 percent of the African-American vote.
The African-American community's impact on the general election is significant -- blacks make up 12 percent of the voting public and 84 percent of registered African-Americans voted in November 2000. And its role in selecting the Democratic nominee cannot be overplayed.
In July, seven of the nine candidates attended the National Urban League (search)'s annual conference. All the Democratic candidates attended the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search)'s annual convention in Florida that same month.
Three of the candidates -- Kucinich, Lieberman and Gephardt -- had intended to skip the event, but ended up coming later and seeking forgiveness in front of the assembly after the NAACP's leaders strongly chastised them for the absence.
On Saturday, Sharpton warned of the dangers of the Democratic Party taking black votes for granted.
"We must no longer be the political mistresses of the Democratic Party. A mistress is where they take you out to have fun, but they can't take you home to mama and daddy. Either we're going to get married in 2004 or we're going to find some folks who ain't ashamed to be seen with us," Sharpton told an awards banquet for minority-owned construction firms.
Asked whether the black community should start dating the GOP, Sharpton replied: "We need to take the Democratic Party home to our daddies and discuss marriage or a break-up ... We helped take you to the dance, and you leave with right-wingers, you leave with people you say are swing people, you leave with people who are antithetical to our history.
"I am saying in 2004, if we take you to the party, you are going to go home with us or we're not going to take you to the party," Sharpton added.
Thornell said the candidates "so far have done a fairly good job of addressing issues that are specifically important to African-Americans -- civil rights, education, the economy.”
But not everyone agrees. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., a CBC member, told Fox News: “Both parties probably have not been exactly forthcoming and as giving to minority voters as we would all like them to be." But, Watt added, Democrats have been better than Republicans.
Asked before the debate whether black voters were hearing what they wanted to hear from the candidates, National Urban League spokeswoman Michelle Moore told Foxnews.com: "We’ll reserve comment at this point.”