The Democrats Debate

It was so much to take in, with 2 nights and 20 candidates.  Some thoughts.

Biden obviously had a bad night.  Whether it was a bad night, or a sign that his “time is up” for good, only time will tell.

He simply doesn’t project well in that kind of a format. He speaks too fast, he doesn’t take breaks to let his points sink in, and he rattles clearly memorized lines off; he fumbles his words, and runs them together; he says things that don’t make sense (e.g., his first act as president would be to defeat Donald Trump…).

Moreover, from an optics perspective, he just looks old.  Leaning forward, as though he is straining to hear the moderator.  He looked like he was struggling to keep up with the younger (two) generations who are clearly more in their prime.

From an affective standpoint, he seemed wary, almost timid–waiting for others to raise their hands in response to a question, for instance, and even then only half-heartedly raising a finger; cutting HIMSELF off to stay on time, the most un-Biden-like thing imaginable.  In any case, not the bearing you expect from a confident frontrunner and prospective leader. He did not project strength. Trump was watching that–closely.

Then, on substance, he was not only unprepared for obvious attacks, but failed to capitalize when he could have. For instance, when asked about his Iraq vote, he should have said he disagreed with Obama on whether to boost our Troop presence in Afghanistan. In response to Harris’ attack on race, he could have:

1) used it as a “teaching moment,” pointing out how the leftward shift in the party risks devolving into purity tests and extreme positions that alienate the majority of voters, and the Dems voters who helped us take back the House in November; hell, he could have said do you want to know why my poll numbers are so high, Senator Harris? Because voters are smart–they recognize that if we’re gonna get things done we gotta work with people who we disagree with–even people who’s views are abhorrent. That was president Obama’s approach, and they supported him not because of the color of his skin, but because they believed he could get things done. And if we are gonna beat Trump, we have to work together, and not get bogged down in fantasies. People talk about being “woke” nowadays, well, we gotta wake up ourselves, folks. (As David Brooks put it in his post-game analysis, at times it sounded as though they were campaigning for office in Brooklyn, not the country)

2) hit back, challenging her controversial record as AG in CA; instead, he let Harris get away with playing the race card (more on that below…)

I don’t think his candidacy is derailed so much as on the ropes.  The next debate will be crucial. But we have to be really careful of over-reading the moment, given that 1) most voters aren’t paying attention yet, and 2) there’s a pattern of the MSM thinking that Biden’s stepped in it, usually regarding some comment about race or gender that offends the sensibilities of the liberal twitterati, only to find no effect in the polls. The consistent message is that most middle of the road voters, including blacks, just don’t give a shit about the vice president’s politically incorrect indiscretions; they just want someone who will beat this motherfucker.

At the same time, Harris really had a stellar night. She was prepared, poised, powerful, and radiated command and conviction. The debate stage is, unsurprisingly, her element. Her political skills are gradually becoming apparent; she understands the dynamics of political theater–an essential skill in the battle against Trump, the lack of which is a serious liability for Joe, as it was for Hillary. Harris has a great narrative for going after Trump–a fighter for justice. She has the potential to summon and focus the rage of two groups–blacks and women–who rightly feel an acute level of anger and injustice at the president, for what he did to Obama, for his lifetime of racist comments and actions, and for his blatant mysogyny and nefarious thwarting of the first female president. It would be the ultimate humiliation and fuck you to Trump and his followers to have a strong black woman beat him. Harris may well be his kryptonite.

Along those lines, I think that if Harris wants to take control of the race, she should do the following. In the wake of Mueller’s testimony, she should hold a high-profile speech and press conference. The congressional committee’s will not let Mueller leave that chair until he has clearly and straightforwardly answered the following question:  “If there were no OLC policy stating that a sitting president cannot be indicted, would you have recommended prosecution for obstruction of justice?” They have to get Mueller to explicitly state what he implicitly did in the report.

The next day, Harris holds an event. Flanked by a phalanx of former federal prosecutors, some of the several hundred who signed a memo affirming that in their professional judgment the president committed crimes, she calls for the impeachment of the president. She acknowledges that the Senate will not convict–but notes that we cannot let the petty political calculus of the present prevent us from protecting the presidency for posterity.

But there is more. Her first act as president will be to order the department of justice to bring the full force of the law down on the president and his gang, and that should he be convicted by a jury of his peers, she will LOCK HIM UP.

She needs, in other words, to go all in, and she is perhaps the candidate best positioned to do it. And she has what Obama—and Hillary—didn’t:  a killer instinct.

Finally, I think her winning strategy is to get to the left of Biden on racial issues and to the right of Sanders and Warren on healthcare and the economy.

Now all that being said, I think that the press is getting a little too hot and bothered over Harris, for three reasons.

First, I don’t have as clear of a vision of where she wants to take the country.  Warren and Buttigieg, in my view, have the clearest vision.  Harris is a little squirmy, particularly around health care, which brings me to the second point.

Harris was, early in the race, seduced by the siren song of single payer, pumped out by the party’s pied piper, Sanders. She has repeatedly played cutesy, signaling support for abolishing private insurance and then walking those comments back post-interview or post-debate. She is being too clever by half, trying to dig into Sanders’ and Warren’s support while trying to leave herself an escape hatch come general election. But I think it’s a mistake. If Biden falters and flames out, Harris and Warren are the two most likely nominees, and both of them are on record raising their hands calling for the end of private insurance.

This is, in a word, madness. For one, the data are very clear:  voters are interested in the concept of Medicare for All, but their support plunges when they here the details, including that they would lose their private insurance. Second, Obamacare is actually popular! Third, calls for incremental fixes to the healthcare system helped the Dems take the House in the Fall. Fourth, Obama never lived down the claim “If you like your doctor, you can keep it” when it turned out that that wasn’t the case for a small minority of voters; imagine what the backlash would be if the plan were to take private insurance away from everyone! It is difficult to conceive of a policy stance that plays better into the GOP’s “socialism strategy” than Medicare for All. Hickenlooper, Bennett (and, the previous night, Crazy Eyes Delaney), despite their irrelevance, correctly pointed out the folly of this approach; my hope was that these centrist pols would go after Sanders like a pincer, without Biden having to punch down (and making Bernie look like the crazy socialist, while Warren would escape unscathed due to the luck of the draw in going the first night)–alas. The correct plan–proposed by Biden and Buttigieg–is to add a public option, which was, of course, the original plan of Obamacare. It moves the system closer to single payer, but allows the shift to happen organically. In short, this stance could be a serious problem for Harris (or Warren) should she become the nominee.

The third reason Harris is problematic is that I think she weaponized race to try and knock Biden down a peg. It made for great television, but it was cheap and unfair. She did what progressives reflexively do to people in the past who, on balance, fought the good fight, but operated under drastically different cultural circumstances. Busing was highly controversial in the 70s, and legislators have to balance their convictions against the will of the people. They should ask themselves this:  what would have happened if there were no Bidens back then to work with those on the right? They fault New Deal progressives for excluding blacks, ignoring the fact that otherwise there would have been no New Deal in the first place.

What is behind this is progressives’ refusal to accept that they are in the minority—in fact, in the minority of the minority.  As Brooks pointed out, a third of the country calls itself conservative, a third centrist, and 26% liberal. They are evangelical in thinking that if they just win the next election, the other half of the country will just disappear. That will never happen. It’s true that in general, progressive policies would benefit the majority, but that means nothing if they can’t get elected in the first place.

And even if they do, on what planet do they propose passing Medicare for All?

The outer limit of fantasy was of course Marianne Williamson calling for “reparations”. If I hear this word one more time out of a candidate’s mouth, I am giving up and buying a MAGA hat. The Congress cannot even agree that today is Saturday, let alone whether and how to give reparations to African Americans. The order of business is, again:  restore the rule of law first, socialist utopia second. Priorities, people!

In short, Harris’ attack was well executed but ill conceived. It is symptomatic of a pattern that progressives fall into at their peril.

Buttigieg did well and offered more evidence that he is constitutionally incapable of not speaking with crystal clarity and perfect grammar. I still have trouble seeing him as the nominee but he should certainly be put in charge of the newly created Department of Making Sense. His dig at the religious right was pointed and potent and was one of the biggest applause lines of the night. His ease and comfort using God-talk (the only one on the stage to do so on either night) once again demonstrated that he brings something different to the table; there is a certain comfort he has talking with more conservative voters that is beyond the grasp of a Booker or a Harris. He is, like Obama, simply at another level, though potentially more dangerous because he is white, clean cut, served in the military, and from Trump country. No one has really mentioned this yet, but a major liability for him is his physical stature; he is short with a light build, and would not cut an impressive figure next to Trump. Sadly, optics like this matter.

Swalwell is an annoying little shit that has no business being up there. His ageist attacks on Biden were shallow and shameful

Michael Bennett made some good points, but also let us know that he recently had cancer. Real way to project strength and vigor. Only a Democrat would be dumb enough to run in that situation and then call attention to it in a debate.

Sanders continues to come off, to me at least, as completely ridiculous and unlikeable, and utterly impossible to imagine as president in this or any parallel universe. I simply cannot understand why he is so popular on the left. My jaw hit the floor when he emphatically declared that under Medicare for All, every woman would have access to an abortion. It is not the substance of the policy that is the problem—it is, again, the endless capacity to pretend there will never be any such thing as a general election, when such statements will be dug up and offered as evidence that the Democrats want socialized medicine so that they can kill more babies. Such statements, like pledging to abolish private insurance or decriminalize crossing the border, are made to come off as left as possible, when in reality those voters have nowhere else to go. While Sanders has admirably created a space on the left to give voice to ideas and voices that have long been marginalized in American politics, he—and his supporters—have made it all but impossible to have meaningful conversations about difficult policy issues by putting ideological purity tests front and center. Speaking of immigration…

Don’t get me started.  I’ll let Andrew Sullivan do the talking:

And as David Frum aptly put it in his recent cover story for the Atlantic, if liberals continue to neglect to police their borders, voters will hire fascists to do it for them.

As for night one, Warren obviously stood head and shoulders above the rest. She is at her peak:  fiery, poised, articulate, knowledgeable, imperious. I think it was lucky for her to be the only heavy-hitter on night one. Booker…you try, but you just can’t believe him. He also comes off as a little insane, and please, America will sooner elect a gay married man than a single man. Beto is toast, clearly revealed as the empty suit that he is; it was really one of the worst debate performances I’ve ever seen. Castro certainly did well—he has a strong presence and owned the immigration issue. Klobuchar’s got nothing.

What I’m curious is about is when the hopeless candidates drop out. The winning combinations I see are Biden/Warren, Biden/Harris, Harris/Brown, Warren/Brown.