You have to wonder how tough the Democratic presidential hopefuls really are when they can't even handle a few hecklers in the crowd. Tuesday night's nationally televised debate nearly ground to a halt when supporters of Lyndon La Rouche repeatedly shouted slogans and protests from the audience. They were angry because the Democratic Party has refused to let La Rouche -- a perennial left-wing presidential candidate who was convicted of mail fraud in the 1980s -- participate in the Democratic debates.
Florida Sen. Bob Graham, the first to be interrupted, reacted like a deer caught in the headlights. And poor Rep. Dick Gephardt seemed downright scared, while Sen. Joe Lieberman looked like he'd swallowed castor oil. Only the Rev. Al Sharpton seemed up to the task of taking on the troublemakers by demanding they give up their "phony liberal game" of stealing attention away from the night's real entertainment.
The Democrats apparently aren't used to being on the receiving end of such bad behavior. But they're sure good at dishing it out, as they demonstrated once again in this second, nationally televised 2004 presidential candidate debate.
To hear the Democrats talk you'd think America's biggest enemy -- the man who wants to destroy this nation and everything it stands for -- isn't Osama bin Laden but George W. Bush
Over and over again during the debate, each of the Democrats described George Bush's America as a place where blacks were denied the right to vote in 2000, where education funding has been slashed, where civil liberties are under attack by the Bush-sponsored U.S. Patriot Act, where Americans are less safe today than we were on September 11, 2001.
The Democrats' claims seemed wildly out of sync with the political mood of the country, not to mention reality.
-- A higher percentage of blacks voted in 2000 than in 1996, according to the U.S. Census Bureau: 53.5 percent compared with 50.6 percent.
-- Education funding for elementary and secondary schools has increased 26 percent since Bush took office, more than any other domestic program.
-- The Patriot Act enjoys the support of 69 percent of the American public, a point even journalist Juan Williams couldn't help but note during his questioning of the candidates.
-- And while the war against terrorism is far from over, an estimated two-thirds of al Qaeda's known leaders are dead or in custody.
Either all the Democratic presidential candidates are oblivious to these facts, or they hope most Americans are.
In both debates, the candidates seemed willing to make almost any charge against Bush, no matter how outrageous, silly or downright unseemly. Al Sharpton, best known for his racist and anti-Semitic demagoguery, compared Bush to "a gang leader." Dick Gephardt was reduced to Jesse Jackson-style doggerel. "Like father, like son/ Four years and he's done," Gephardt rhymed. And Joe Lieberman seemed on the verge of losing his dinner: "The radical right direction George Bush has taken the country makes me sick," the usually mild-mannered Lieberman inveighed.
It's hard to imagine that even Lyndon La Rouche could have been more offensive than this crew if he'd been allowed to participate in the debates.
It is still early in the presidential nominating process, and Tuesday's debate was aimed at the Democratic Party faithful, as was the debate in Albuquerque, N.M., last Thursday. Most Democrats aren't yet paying close attention to their party's presidential contest. And the rest of Americans don't seem to have a clue what's going on in the Democratic Party. A poll out this month showed that two-thirds of voters couldn't name a single one of the nine Democratic candidates running -- which might be just as well for the Democrats.
Perhaps, the candidates can afford to act up now, playing to the most extreme elements within their party. But if the Democrats can't figure out a way to appeal to the rest of the voters by the time they pick their nominee, they can forget about defeating the man they so malign.