Quick take on tonight’s debate:

An underwhelming affair altogether. For a domestic policy debate, there were a fair number of non-domestic or non-policy questions. Kerry made the case for better homeland security well but didn’t go after Bush too strongly on creating a gigantic “tax gap” through tax cuts for the rich instead of paying for security for the rest of us. Reviving Bush’s quote about his lack of concern about bin Laden was a good move, and Bush’s description of the verbatim quote as an “exaggeration” was so obviously false even Fox News chose to air the original tape Kerry was quoting.

It was striking how eager Bush is to redirect all questions about the economy to the education issue, however dubious his record there. Funny how as a Republican he can get away with touting the spending increase as huge without drawing fire from the right and then turn around and charge those who push for more spending as tax-and-spend liberals. Kerry had a good line is saying the point wasn’t spending but rather results. But he seemed uncertain whether to tear into Bush on education, go back to the original question, or charge him with changing the topic – so he did a little bit of each. The politics are tricky, insofar as Bush is right that education’s key to improving living standards and growing the economy, and Kerry and most Americans agree. So making the case against Bush has to include his broken promises on education. But education doesn’t determine the health of the economy alone – taxes, trade, and the minimum wage are all crucial issues on which we deserve a real debate. Because as “compassionate” as re-training may sound, it offers more potential at the beginning of your career than towards the end. And because educated professionals are losing their jobs. And because we will never have an economy without a service sector or an industrial sector, and those jobs need to be dignified, living wage work. A minimum wage that’s half the poverty line if you’re supporting a kid is shameful. Also shameful is a government’s breach of faith with that parent and that child when it comes to funding education. By the way: Where was the right to organize in that debate? Why did unions only come up in terms of Kerry refusing to make promises to them?

On social issues, Bush was much more “wishy-washy” than Kerry, and more ambiguous than he should have gotten away with. Kerry’s failure to pin the Republican Platform’s call for a constitutional ban on abortion on Bush was a huge missed opportunity. His answer on abortion was better this time than the last debate though. On gay rights, Kerry’s saddled with his own bad policy of opposition to equal marraige rights, but at least managed to come down against the idea that gay folks just chose it. As for what they learned from their women, well, if the question had in fact been, as C-SPAN displayed it at first, “What have you learned about the women in your life?” it might have been more interesting.

I’d say Edwards accomplished what he set out to do with his speech: he put forward a broad and attractive plan, shared a set of sympathetic values, and projected energy, confidence, and optimism. No big surprises, but I don’t think there were intended to be (there are all manner of big surprises I would’ve liked to see, generally falling into the category of John Edwards morphing into John Lewis). “Two Americas” works as a unifying theme, contrary to the grousing of the National Review crowd, because it speaks to a reality which most Americans intuitively recognize and implicitly sets forth an ideal most Americans are ready to work and sacrifice for. Glad to see Edwards at least intimating the connections between different forms of social, political, and economic equality in this country – in education, in healthcare, and such. And it was heartening to hear this graph:

We can also do something about 35 million Americans who live in poverty every day. And here’s why we shouldn’t just talk about but do something about the millions of Americans who live in poverty. Because it is wrong. And we have a moral responsibility to lift those families up. I mean the very idea that in a country of our wealth and our prosperity, we have children going to bed hungry. We have children who don’t have the clothes to keep them warm. We have millions of Americans who work full-time every day to support their families, working for minimum wage and still live in poverty. It’s wrong. These are men and women who are living up to their bargain. They’re working hard, they’re supporting their families. Their families are doing their part; it’s time we did our part.

And that’s what we’re going to do, that’s what we’re going to do when John is in the White House. Because we’re going to raise the minimum wage. We’re going to finish the job on welfare reform. And we’re going to bring good paying jobs to the places where we need them the most. . And by doing all those things we’re going to say no forever to any American working full-time and living in poverty. Not in our America, not in our America. Not in our America. Not in our America.

Obviously, it’s urgent to assert that the New Deal is something which creates a middle class, not something which saps it, and certainly anyone running for office in this country should speak to a strategy for expanding and securing the middle class. But that said, the ongoing invisibility of the American poor in Democratic party rhetoric of the past decade is disgraceful. It’s a tragic abdication of the responsibility of a real social contract. As Edwards reminded Kerry during the primary campaign, while Kerry was heading off voluntarily to war, Edwards was trying to figure out how to afford to go to college. And as Sharpton reminded Edwards, not everyone then – or now – could get a job as a mill worker. So the recognition of the plight and the promise of the working poor in the Vice Presidential acceptance speech is a step in the right direction, even if “finishing the job on welfare reform” sounds somewhat macabre. Let’s hear more about the working poor from Kerry tomorrow.

Hope is a winning theme. “Hope is on the way,” is a frustrating formulation though. Some of us who’ve had the pleasure of several rallies with the Rev. Jesse Jackson like to joke about the frequency with which the “Keep hope alive” slogan is repeated, but that’s fundamentally a good slogan because it offers an urgent, achievable imperative. “Hope is on the way” is inherently top down, and Edwards’ use of it – tell each of the beleaguered people you know that hope is on the way – reinforces the idea that the Kerry-Edwards ticket is some sort of superhero flying through the city saving victims. I’d like to hear less about hope being on the way and more about how we’re going to join together to take on the work of bringing it into being.

Over at the New York Times (quasi-)blog, Matt Bai is trying to take a bold stance against conventional wisdom by arguing that Howard Dean’s campaign did not, in fact, leave any lasting legacy for American politics:

Dr. Dean can hardly claim to have laid the rails for some powerful engine of change. His campaign, as he never tired of reminding us, was about “taking the country back,” which seemed another way of saying it was basically about winning.

It’s a nice try, but in this case the conventional wisdom (if that’s what it is – I thought the conventional wisdom, at least over at the Times, was that Dean was an unstable fanatic leading hordes of dateless college kids) is right. Bai’s basic argument, it seems, is that Dean didn’t run on a signature issue and therefore was only creative tactically but not ideologically. I think he’s wrong on two counts. First, as Dean himself has argued, the seeming unanimity among the Democratic candidates now obscures the fact that a year ago few were arguing that blasting Bush’s broken promises in Iraq, in public schools, and in the workplace was the Democrats’ route to success. Healthcare in particular was an issue that, while urgently important to millions of Americans for decades, Howard Dean put back on the map for a party largely convinced that because a zealous corporate lobby was able to tank a half-hearted moderate healthcare reform ten years ago it was relatively hopeless to try to cover most Americans.

Second, Bai is wrong to argue that Howard Dean’s tactics amounted to nothing more than really wanting to win. The significance of what Dean embarked on is demonstrated, as I argued at the time, by the incredulity of the New York Times magazine in trying to report what was driving his campaign. “Ordinary Americans convinced that there could be a connection between a broken political system and the challenges they’re confronting in their own lives? Must be like of some kind of Alchoholics Anonymous meeting. Why are they talking so much about themselves? Don’t they know only people who run for office are important?” An organizing model, like universal healthcare, is not a new idea. But what they have in common is that the Democratic party of the past couple decades has in large part left them to rust. And Howard Dean, for all his mistakes – like relying on Northeastern college students to canvass in Iowa rather than cultivating a stronger core of organizers from the state – helped bring them back to life.

There’s been a lot of talk recently among Democrats, particularly those committed to John Kerry, about how Howard Dean “brought people into the party.” That’s true, but it’s only half of the story, and in that sense is wishful thinking by those who want the Democratic party to stay the course of the past decade. Howard Dean, despite a conservative record of his own, chose that he could get farthest by being a vessel for a popular movement that existed before him and will continue after him – and in so doing, he took an important step towards bring the Democratic party back to the people.

The Wall Street Journal is closer to the truth than the New York Times on this one: “the most consequential loser since Barry Goldwater.”

The ACLU of Pennsylvania (one of the places I’ve been interning this summer) scored an important victory today when District Judge Robert Kelly ruled, in our favor, that forcing students – public and private school both – to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day or have their refusal reported to their parents is a stark violation of students’ rights. The overruled sponsor’s measure, State Rep. Allan Egolf, had a less than inspiring defense of his idea:

“I thought there wouldn’t be any problems with it,” Egolf said. “We just wanted to make it so the kids had the opportunity to learn the pledge and what the flag means to our country and what it stands for. If you don’t learn it in school, where are you going to learn it?”

This argument, like many made in defense of school prayer, seems to demonstrate a willful disregard for the distinction between studying an idea and practicing it. It’s about as convincing as the state’s lawyer’s argument in court: “The Pledge of Allegiance is only 70 or so words long anyway.”

Kelly, relatively conservative himself, was much more perceptive:

This letter home, Kelly wrote, “would chill the speech of certain students who would involuntarily recite the speech or [national] anthem rather than have a notice sent to their parents.”

Kelly also wrote that Egolf’s comments from the House debate had made it “obvious that he views refusal to recite the pledge or anthem as something negative for which disciplinary sanctions would be warranted.”

Justice Jackson, seventy years ago, said it best however:

To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions.

That it took a District Court ruling to stop the state of Pennsylvania from forcing all children to declare their allegiance to the flag or be told on to their parents (presumably because such subversion would demonstrate to the parents a failure in their conditioning of their progeny) doesn’t make our institutions look too hot either – although that much better than if, as many expected, Judge Kelly had ruled the other way.