The Democrats’ December Debate

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Seven of them! I was going to say, “Still too many,” but I think I’ll miss the ones that will be squeezed out next. Already I miss Representative Tulsi Gabbard. She is not going to be the nominee, but I note that she was the only Democrat in the House to vote “present” on the articles of impeachment. It would have been entertaining and maybe instructive to have the other seven Democrats light into Gabbard, and her into them. Gabbard had helped vanquish Kamala Harris — a net gain for the republic.

The rest of the candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD. They have conditioned themselves not to answer certain questions, but to select the question they wanted and press PLAY. The moderators, who know this, ask the wrong questions in the hope of unleashing a wobble of individuality. The first question of the night was to answer why, given that they all supported impeachment, did only about half of the American electorate support it?

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer all pressed PLAY and gave the prepared answer: Trump deserves impeachment because his administration is “the most corrupt in modern history” (Sanders), et cetera. Steyer one-upped the others by saying he began a public effort for impeachment two years ago — before Trump’s telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The candidates are becoming painfully familiar. Their spiels are not only memorized but burned into their neurons like the tracks on a DVD.

Yang was the only one who answered the question. Americans don’t agree on impeachment, he said, because they are getting their news from different sources, some of them pro-Trump and some rabidly anti-Trump that say he’s president only because of “Russia, racism, Facebook, Hillary Clinton, and emails.” The impeachment fight, Yang said, “strikes many Americans as a ballgame where you know what the score is going to be.”

Indeed. Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

Moderators asked another “tough” question: given that the American economy is operating at full employment, how can they argue against Trump on the economy? Predictably, all who answered wallowed in gloom. Biden said, “The middle class is being killed.” Warren said, “The middle class is being hollowed out.” Buttigieg said, “This economy isn’t working for most of us.” Sanders said of an increase in average wages of 1.1% (Nov. 2018–Nov. 2019, after inflation, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics), “That ain’t great.” Yang joined in on the gloomfest, saying that average life expectancy in America has dropped for three years, largely on account of drug overdoses and suicides.

Yang is not going to be president, but it was good to have him there.

I checked that out, and it’s true. The drop came in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the last year for which statistics are available, from 78.9 years to 78.6 years. I didn’t know that, and I thank Yang for bringing it up, but what does it have to do with Donald Trump? What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)? And for that matter, what control does he have over the average increase in real wages?

One of the most annoying features of these long, gas-filled debates is that candidates offer solutions and “plans” for everything under the sun, from planetary climate to the worries of a diabetic in Nevada sharing insulin with his sisters. Never do you hear a candidate say, “The presidency is an office of limited powers, and I couldn’t help you with that.” The closest in this debate was on the question of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which all good Democrats are for. The question was then put to Biden, who was vice president for eight years when it was not done. And Biden said, “You have to have congressional authority to do it.”

Biden also said, regarding his support of the war in Afghanistan, “I was wrong.” I credit him for that. Politicians hardly ever say it.

On the matter of global warming, Steyer said he would declare a national emergency. So would Sanders. Declaring an emergency would allow the president to do — what? Buttigieg and Klobuchar supported a carbon tax, which would have to be passed by Congress. Biden wanted to offer Americans 550,000 electric charging stations and tax credits for solar panels on their roofs. (More free stuff!) One of the more interesting questions was whether the candidates would support nuclear power, because it emits no carbon. Warren, like the good progressive she is, said no more nuclear. So did Steyer. “We actually have the technology that we need,” he said. “It’s called wind and solar and batteries.” (Wind and solar and batteries?) Only Yang said he would consider nuclear, mentioning “next generation thorium reactors.”

What control does the president of the United States have over drug overdoses and suicides (including those that occurred before he took office)?

Does the president decide what sort of power plant utility companies build? They spoke as if he did.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god. One of the questions was, what would you do to stop violence against transgendered people? An honest answer might have been, “I could condemn it vigorously.” Warren said, “I will go to the Rose Garden once every year to read the names of transgender women, people of color, who have been killed in the past year.” It was a weak answer, but what could she say?

The one field in which the president is king is foreign affairs. There the Democratic thought was that America had to rejoin its allies and act in unison to support democracy and human rights. Several referred to Hong Kong, where protesters have been challenging Chinese hegemony — and China has, so far, held back. Yang had been to Hong Kong, and he has family there. He talked about the Hong Kong police’s use of facial recognition technology and the territory’s ban on facemasks. He didn’t suggest anything America could do about Hong Kong. Buttigieg talked about “isolating” China if it sent in the army. Biden talked about beefing up the Pacific Fleet to “protect other folks.” (What folks?) He added, “We don’t have to go to war. But we have to make it clear: this is as far as you go, China.”

I cut the candidates some slack here. They can be clear about the big policy things they can’t do by themselves, but foreign policy they can do, and it does not pay to show one’s hand in advance.

The questioners repeatedly asked questions appropriate to a dictator, or a god.

There were also some flashes of clarity. The questioners tried to pin down Sanders on why he’s for zero tuition at public colleges for everyone, and not just for those with, say, family incomes under $150,000 — Buttigieg’s proposal. Why would he cancel student debt for all, including the well-off, especially since he has it in for “the billionaire class”?

“I believe in the concept of universality,” he said, offering as examples Social Security and the public schools.

Warren was asked the same thing in regard to free tuition. Well, she said, she was going to pay for it with a tax on wealth — the implication being that the wealthy should not be excluded from free tuition. Universality, again.

And what would free public college mean for the private colleges? Nobody asked.

The one issue that heated up the debate was the one that means the most to the candidates themselves — paying for their campaigns. All candidates except the super-wealthy have to ask donors for money, and they hate doing it. The Democrats were all for getting private money out of politics — i.e., getting it from the government — but since that handout has not yet been universalized, they are in a bind. They can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

Buttigieg was taking the big checks, and Warren called him out on it. Buttigieg had recently held a fundraiser in a “wine cave,” at which a bottle of inebriant went for $900. “Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," Warren said.

Democratic hopefuls can stand under a halo and accept only small donations, as Sanders and Warren are doing, or they can take big checks from those willing to write them and risk being called hypocrites.

This made me chuckle. Nine hundred isn’t a billion, and would billionaires pick Buttigieg? I didn’t think so. Buttigieg was not chuckling, He said Warren’s statement demonstrated “the problem of passing purity tests that you yourself cannot pass . . . Senator, your net worth is 100 times mine.”

(Big cheer from the audience.)

“I don’t sell access to my time,” she said.

Buttigieg said her campaign is partly funded with money she raised in earlier campaigns and transferred to this one. “Did it corrupt you? Of course not,” he said.

This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered.

Klobuchar, who didn’t have a lot memorable to say this night, joined in and said, “I have never even been to a wine cave.” I recalled that in an earlier debate she said she had raised campaign money from old boyfriends.

A woman of the people.

Sanders bragged that he has more donors than anyone in American history, and that the donations average $18. Biden said his average was $43. Steyer, who has been donating millions to himself, wanted to change the subject. “We need to talk about prosperity,” he said.

I was tired of all the talking. This was the fourth or fifth Democratic debate I’d endured — I was losing count — and I was tired of the pretense that they all mattered. Steyer is not going to be the nominee. No way is the Democratic Party going to nominate a businessman. Ditto Yang, the entrepreneur. He even made a joke about this in his closing remarks: “I know what you are thinking, America. How am I still on the stage with them?” Yeah, I was thinking that. Yang is more of an individual, more “authentic,” than the rest of them, but he’s not going to be the nominee. Probably not Buttigieg or Klobuchar either. It will be Warren, Sanders, or Biden.

Well, let it be Biden. At least he knows the office, and he’s not a socialist.




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