Did These Guys Watch the Same Debate?

Maybe it was just a wardrobe malfunction, but there seems to be some confusion about the status of the Democrats’ gloves in last night’s debate.

According to The Boston Globe, “(John) Edwards, Who Vowed a Positive Campaign, Takes Off the Gloves.”

But Alan Borsuk of The Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel believes that the candidates “mostly kept their gloves on.”

And Michael Tackett of the Chicago Tribune tells us that “Slugging Hopefuls Put on Kid Gloves.”

(Maybe someone should ask Nigel Tufnell whether the Democrats smelled the glove.)

That confusion over gloves carries over into coverage of the debate as a whole. What happened in Milwaukee? As is so often the case, it depends whom you ask.

Echoing the Globe, Dan Balz and David Broder of The Washington Post report that “John Edwards sharpened his differences with John F. Kerry…challenging the front-runner on trade issues and telling him, ‘Not so fast’ about asserting he will be the Democratic presidential nominee.”

Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times agrees, reporting that “John Edwards jabbed John F. Kerry over his views on trade and spending…presenting his most aggressive challenge to him since the Massachusetts senator emerged as the front-runner.”

Sounds like a lively affair. Not according to the Tribune, or to the Journal-Sentinel (which headed its story: “Democrats Play it Safe in Milwaukee: Candidates Easy On Each Other…”).

Or to Adam Nagourney of The New York Times, who tells us that, “John Kerry sailed through the final debate before the Wisconsin primary…as Howard Dean and John Edwards repeatedly sidestepped opportunities to criticize him.”

Or to Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press, who writes that “Kerry emerged largely unscathed from debate with rivals.”

(As if backing down from that characterization, around 10:30 this morning the AP changed the headline of its story from “Kerry Unscathed in Democratic debate” to “Debate Strengthens Kerry’s No.1 Position.”)

There’s no reason why major political reporters have to agree with each other, of course. But on the issue of trade, somebody has this one right, and somebody doesn’t, so let’s listen to Edwards’ words:

You know, Senator Kerry is entitled, as is Governor Dean, to support free trade, as they always have. The problem is there what we see happening, and it’s NAFTA, which I opposed, plus a whole series of other trade agreements, have been devastating here in Wisconsin. Nobody has to tell me what the effect is of some of these bad trade agreements.

Nagourney of The New York Times described that this way: “Senator Edwards noted that he and Mr. Kerry had different views on trade policy.” But in general, he says, “Edwards avoided drawing any sharp distinctions or offering any attack that might turn the course of Tuesday’s vote here.”

Balz and Broder of the Post saw it differently: “Edwards had promised to challenge Kerry more directly on the issue of trade and jobs when they met in debate, and he kept his pledge.”

Now, it’s true that the North Carolina senator has been walking a fine line, trying to “draw contrasts” between himself and Kerry without compromising his image as the “nice guy” candidate. But voicing a clear criticism of Kerry’s stance on trade, certainly strikes us as “a sharp distinction.” Whether it qualifies as an attack that “might turn the course of Tuesday’s vote,” who knows?

That’s what we have voters for.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.