If I'm George Bush, I'm breathing a lot easier today. The Democrats have failed to exorcise the spirit of FDR, let alone Fritz Mondale. Wealth is evil, "rich" people don't work, Social Security is sacrosanct (Gen Xers, bend over), and central planning is the answer to all our national ills.
Among the candidates, only John Kerry appeared to be sufficiently serious and thoughtful to pose any threat to a second Bush term. Edwards, Sharpton, and Moseley-Braun were nonentities, Kucinich was frightening, Graham was just silly, waving his "economic plan." Clark was presentable but boring, and offered nothing of substance; he had to be cornered before he would offer a simple yes-or-no answer to the question about letting individuals invest some of their payroll taxes in the capital markets (he's agin' it). Dean and Gephardt should have scared the bejeezus out of the investor class, and anyone whose livelihood depends on trade and open markets (including, Mr. Gephardt, the members of the United Auto Workers union, whose employers buy and sell components from dozens of countries ... for the time being).
Joe Lieberman was an enigma. While he said some of the right things about the importance of trade, whenever backed in the corner, he started pandering. When asked if some sort of new WPA would get the economy moving, he said that would be "a good start." When asked what unpopular decision he'd make on Day One in office, he said he'd jump-start the war on terror. (John Ashcroft, you're a piker.) The only rationale I can see for Lieberman to stay in the race is to capture the pissed-off Gore supporters who can't stomach Dean.
Kerry appeared to be the adult on stage. He articulated the only message that was not overtly hostile to free-market capitalism, the creation of wealth, the dynamism of open exchange. He refused to pit "workers" against "the wealthy." He could mount a credible challenge to a president who seems to be teetering. But he'll probably never get a chance, because Kerry's reasonable message just about guarantees he'll never be nominated by Democratic activists, who remain pathologically enamored of the Great Society, notwithstanding its failures.
Of course, the Bush administration has boxed Democrats into a corner. They can't pledge to reduce the deficit and offer new spending programs, because this White House has spent so recklessly, as John O'Sullivan said on CNBC, as to make drunken sailors appear to be models of sobriety. This may be brilliant politics on Bush's part, but when the tab comes due ...
Hats off to CNBC for devising a format that worked, despite the unwieldy number of participants. Keep that in mind the next time the League of Women Voters, or whoever, bars legitimate minor party candidates from a presidential debate because it would be unmanageable to have "so many people" (4 or 5?) on stage at once.