Looking back, the Democratic Party’s “debate” did, I think, what it was supposed to do. For those paying close attention, it continued to winnow the field. On the other hand, I’ve been watching social media comments and it appears to have failed as entertainment.
I usually fetishize putting down my thoughts before I hear what other people have to say. I even turn off the talking heads, because I’ve been writing politics for a long time for Indian country and I consider myself to be in competition with mainstream media — and, no, I don’t call them “lamestream” except when they try to correct course on ignoring Indian country and fall into stereotype.
In this case, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public reaction is probably the story, and it rolls along independent of debating points because the voters generally don’t know how to score debates but they have a perhaps unconscious paradigm of who fits in that big house the slaves built. So who do I think is out after last night?
Julian Castro is out. His swing at Joe Biden about whether he remembers what he said “two minutes ago” would have been gratuitously cruel if it had been true. It was not true, so exactly who was failing to remember or failing to understand?
Everyone is jumping up and down about Castro having the fact of the matter wrong, but it seems to me the point is that the Trump administration has been overtly cheerleading for racist cruelty and practicing it to a degree I had hoped was unthinkable.
Taking children from the arms of their parents? Putting them in cages and then claiming that what the country saw on video was not happening? Sending lawyers into court to argue that incarcerated persons, adults or children, don’t need soap and toothbrushes? But the crowning glory of cruelty had to be sending letters to the parents of children here for lifesaving medical treatment telling them they have thirty days to leave.
Castro came across as browbeating your grandpa, and I don’t think that will fly in an election where cruelty is a live issue. Whether grandpa has enough of his marbles remaining to be president remains a serious question.
Joe Biden is a geezer and so am I. He has lost a few steps and so have I. Part of my reaction to getting cancer was to put my law license on inactive status. After one post-surgery scare, my oncologist cleared me to do whatever I feel competent to do and it came to me that I don’t feel competent to try a lawsuit. I am realizing that it’s time to pay attention to when I should give up my car keys, because I don’t want to put my family in the position of deciding who is going to bell the cat. I’m sad about all that, but I don’t think it makes me less of a man or tarnishes my professional record.
The point of this digression is that I don’t hate Biden and his accomplishments, in my opinion, outweigh some terrible decisions. The way he conducted the Clarence Thomas hearing probably did as much harm as any error he made, but he lived though some troubled times and kept his eye on the ball better than many of his peers. There is no question in my mind that he wants to serve his country, not himself. He probably looks at Trump and sees every reason he went into public service mocked and twisted to benefit the few at the expense of the many.
My active years paralleled Biden’s and we were on the same side more often than not. But it’s part of watching him for so long that leads me to want to yell at the TV. It’s so obvious to me that he’s not thinking as quickly or as clearly as he did, why can’t everybody see it? It’s no more his fault he’s aging than it’s my fault, but I find myself holding my breath and watching the wheels turn as he listens to a question and — I know this is crazy — hoping he does not blow it.
My feeling is crazy because now is when he needs to blow it — not when he is up there debating the least qualified president in our lifetimes, mine and his. I just don’t want to see Joe Biden ridiculed or disgraced. He does not deserve such treatment, but I know Trump will go to town on it.
Julian Castro’s tiny step in that direction will probably be the end of Castro as a serious candidate this time, but if he were as cruel as he made himself appear we in Texas would know it by now. He’s highly competitive and he stepped over a line that I hope still exists on the Democratic side because it’s long gone on the Republican side. In his opening statement, Castro asserted:
There will be life after Donald Trump.
If Castro was correct, then kindness will no longer be mistaken for weakness. It would be a good idea to get started on that.
The other Texan, Beto O’Rourke, finally found his voice at great cost to Odessa and El Paso. The sound bite most likely to live on from this debate will be:
Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15s and your AK-47s.
It would be a good idea to get started on that as well, but there’s a problem, and it’s not the Second Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion finding the Second Amendment to be an individual rather than a collective right went out of its way to declare that not every weapon is covered. It’s nice to know there will be no individual stinger missiles loitering on the shoulders of dodgy characters around airport runways, but Scalia also included assault rifles.
It’s not the Second Amendment that is the problem with taking assault weapons out of private hands; it’s the Fifth Amendment guarantee that when the government takes your property for a public purpose, the government has to pay you fair market value. Beto and other candidates who have come to see the gross stupidity in allowing anybody tall enough to put their money on the counter to buy weapons designed to quickly maim as many people as possible — and have located the constitutional issue — need to do the arithmetic.
Here are a couple other thoughts for public policy on guns. First, remember that machine guns are not illegal, and they were the weapon of choice for many famous criminals. You might say the soundtrack for the Roaring Twenties was the Thompson submachine gun. You can have a tommy gun of your very own if you want it badly enough to spend the money and contend with the bureaucracy. Criminals, by and large, don’t.
Second, very few of the mass shooters are practicing gun nuts. Maybe it’s because I live in Texas, but I know plenty of gun nuts and I do not consider them dangerous because of their ownership of assault rifles. They are dangerous only politically, when they see the specter of confiscation behind every tree. They know what they paid for their assault rifles and if they would also do the arithmetic then perhaps all sane people could have a conversation about how to keep assault rifles now in private hands from being used to repel imaginary invasions or accomplish suicide by cop.
Beto may have the sound bite of the evening, but his candidacy is dead in the water. He was not the only candidate who got a lot of attention as he was sinking.
Andrew Yang returned to being the novelty act he was in the beginning, before people started listening and hearing a businessman who had it together so much better than Trump. It seemed not to occur to him that there might be a legal problem in giving away campaign funds to persons he hopes will vote for him or that there will be a political problem in playing to the Republican stereotype that Democrats want to give away other people’s money.
Yang had run his thousand dollar a month experiment already with his own money. Now he’s offering it for a year to ten families who win his essay contest payable out of his campaign account. Even if that turns out to be legal, he’s no longer running to be president; he’s running to be Oprah. That said, I can think of a couple of places he would fit well in the cabinet. He’s not as dumb as that stunt made him appear.
And after the other candidates are done laughing, they need to explain how they propose to deal with job-grabbing robots. I presume that after Trump we will no longer blame the Mexicans. A retreat from racism no more creates a job than adopting racism in the first place did. The history of racism is that it enables poor wages and unsafe working conditions, but it does not create jobs.
You can’t think of jobs without hearing that giant sucking sound as they decamp the Midwest. While Amy Klobuchar no doubt planned this line, it is in retrospect so obvious that she must have had a backup plan in case somebody else got there first:
Houston, we have a problem.
She and Cory Booker were most focused on the necessity to stitch the two halves of his divided country back together. They both seemed to believe that could be accomplished by somewhat more moderate policies and their own personal magnetism.
While it was Klobuchar who recognized “we have a problem,” Booker seems to communicate more effectively what Barack Obama used to call “fierce urgency.” He sounded like a true patriot when he reminded us:
At our best, we unify and find common cause.
He is so right, and if we can accomplish that, we can do almost anything. I say “almost” because we may have let climate change get so close to the tipping point that it has tipped, can’t be effectively reversed, and a lot of people are going to die no matter what we do going forward.
However, we can’t assume that. Even if we can’t stop climate change, we can mitigate it with the same policies that would have stopped it had they not been Trumped. Optimism wins elections. I look at those old newsreels of FDR, jaunty with his long cigarette holder in the face of apparent doom at home and overseas. I compare JFK’s presentation with Richard Nixon’s. Optimism wins and optimism is necessary to squeeze out every bit of effort we have.
It will be seen whether Booker and Klobuchar have made enough optimistic noise to stay in the hunt.
Kamala Harris seemed to be the happiest warrior of the evening, starting with her opening statement spoken directly into the camera and addressed to Donald John Trump. After running down a selection of his policy sins, chapter and verse, she said,
And now, President Trump, you can go back to watching Fox News.
Harris was effectively confronted for the first time on a national stage with some of her less-than-progressive practices as a district attorney. Stripped of rhetorical flourishes, her explanation was that she had to make some unsavory moves as a price for holding the office and being able to make the progressive reforms she made.
I believe her, but I have to realize the same attack could have come at me. There were ways I shook up the criminal justice system in my first career as a judge and there were ways I did not. I could explain my choices in terms of my fundamental values and I would sound a lot like Kamala Harris.
Coming into this dog and pony show, there were three serious candidates — -Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders — and everybody else auditioning for VP. I’ve written about the everybody else excepting the one I think did himself the most good, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Then I listen to what others have to say and I’m told that he was too quiet and lacking in planted one liners, and this debate proved his pan is done flashing.
I don’t think so. He and Andrew Yang are the candidates with the most credible claim to being Washington outsiders. It’s no accident that they have survived so far on their wits because they both hit the Goldilocks spot of being scary smart but smart enough not to be scary — or arrogant. You will never hear Yang or Buttigieg bragging about their intelligence or their college grades and you will certainly never have to watch them belittle an ordinary citizen — let alone a Gold Star parent — for daring to disagree with them.
The biggest difference between them is that Buttigieg knows a lot more about government and politics. It’s true that Buttigieg was pretty quiet on this occasion, but I don’t think he was in a prevent defense. He polls marginally higher than the other others but it’s not enough of a lead go all cautious for fear of pulling a Biden. I think he swings the racket when the ball comes his way and whacks it over the net but in bounds and trusts the voters to notice. Sort of like his position on Medicare-for-all that we should trust the voters to choose between a public option and private insurance.
And those looking for a sound bite should give him some credit for the most pithy and correct statement in this silly season so far about where the Democrats stand:
It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say. It’s true that if we embrace a far left agenda, they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. Let’s stand up for the right policy, go up there and defend it.
As if to prove Buttigieg’s point, the Trump campaign paid to have a huge banner towed back and forth in the skies of Houston reading:
Socialism Will Kill Houston’s Economy
VOTE TRUMP 2020
The voters will tell the pollsters whether Buttigieg is out and the pollsters will tell the voters if he is, at which time we can quit paying attention. For now, we leave Mayor Pete and I direct your attention to the center ring of this circus, going in the order the pollsters tell us the candidates are currently occupying.
At number three of three is the real socialist, Bernie Sanders. Some will quibble over Bernie’s idea of “democratic socialism,” but if he accepts the label the GOP is trying to apply, expect the voters to consider him a socialist. I think that in the 2016 elections, he made U.S. politics safe for socialism, and anybody who claims absolute certainty whether he would have been nominated if the Democrats had not stacked the deck knows something I don’t know. I will say Hillary Clinton had the advantage….so why stack the deck?
This time around, or at least on this night, Bernie Sanders was doing his best impression of Oscar the Grouch. He called Trump, probably correctly,
The most dangerous president in the history of this country.
However, the Bernie Sanders who showed up on this occasion is not somebody the voters will want on their TV screens for four years, let alone eight. He was angry before anyone said a word and he just got angrier as the night wore on.
Perhaps next time he will have his game face on.
If anybody was playing a prevent defense, it was Elizabeth Warren, whose steady march upward in the polls has given her turf worth defending.
She got her story out for those who didn’t know it, and it’s very like the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama stories (and, incidentally, my own): rags to riches by way of education. We also have in common birth in the Oklahoma boondocks. Falling out of the middle class because her father had a heart attack made her ascent much more difficult and gave her memories that influence her policy positions today.
She attended the University of Houston when I was attending the University of Texas — in the $50 a semester tuition days.
Her brothers escaped their situation by joining the military, leaving her sensitive to pressing American GIs into unnecessary wars — a sensitivity I’d like to see more of in this age of the chicken hawks.
Affordable and high quality childcare is another goal where she believes government could play a constructive role.
I name these three matters that seem to be at the top of her agenda because she has the longest agenda of any candidate, and it seems likely that, should she be elected, that agenda will be truncated by lack of money or lack of political capital or both.
That leaves the man at the peak of the pyramid, former VP Joe Biden. His detractors accuse him of seeking a third term for Obama. If that’s the worst knock they can come up with on Joe Biden, I would say bring him on…as I watch The Donald demolish every policy with Obama’s name on it and pack the federal courts with lawyers who have no qualification beyond the political. (Where is Merrick Garland when we need him?)
The Democrats have not set out the qualifications for the next debates, but it’s rational to expect fewer invitations to the next party. Two more outsiders, Marianne Williamson and Tom Steyer, did not make this one. Steyer is still in the hunt for the next one and it’s no coincidence that Steyer will be the only candidate who can go head to head with Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s campaign planks calling for fundamental change in the election process.
Buttigieg is already on the record wanting to render gerrymandering unlawful, overturn the result in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (opening elections to corporate money), and abolish the electoral college. Not only would Steyer lap up those reforms, I don’t think we would see a debate including Steyer that does not include the word “impeachment.”
Candidates can’t impeach, but they can lay down markers to beat them with if they are elected and conduct themselves badly. Throwing impeachment in would also make a debate less likely to fail as entertainment. Just sayin’.
This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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