Shrinking Audience, Shrinking Stage

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Americans are getting tired of the debates. Back in June, when so many Democrats itched to be president that the talkfests were spread over two days, 27.1 million people tuned in by live TV and streaming. Voters didn’t know some of these Democrats, and wanted to get a sense of them — who Pete Buttigieg was, for example, and how to pronounce his name. By the July debates, viewership dropped by half, and by November, half again; and in December to 6.2 million on live television.

That’s one of every 25 of the 153 million registered voters in the United States. So if you missed it, don’t upbraid yourself. This time I was going to miss it and go to a movie, but it snowed and I stayed home and watched the debate after all. So here goes . . .

Six candidates made the cut, which was based on polls and number of donors. Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what? Those excluded were Michael Bennet, Michael Bloomberg, John Delaney, Deval Patrick, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang. The thing they have in common is not race, but failure to connect with voters. Then, during the debate, Bernie Sanders was confronted about a remark he supposedly made in a private conversation two years ago that Elizabeth Warren would have difficulty being elected because she is a woman. He denied it and she, by her response, essentially confirmed it. Which means — what? For once I felt sorry for the guy.

Some of the excluded candidates and their supporters bellyached that all six who made the cut were white — which meant what?

They piled on Sanders for another matter — all the taxpayer money he planned to unleash in his Medicare for All plan. The moderator asked whether his single-payer system would “bankrupt the country.” Sanders’ answer was that yeah, it would cost trillions, but Americans would be done with premiums, deductibles, and copays, and that those added up to more. Therefore, his Medicare for All would cost less. Perhaps this was another political lie, but the Vermont socialist clearly believes it. And I think he could be right about it. If Sanders designed a European-type system, and Congress accepted his version of it, it might well save money. The Canadian system is cheaper than ours, the British system is cheaper than the Canadian, the Cuban system is cheaper than the British, and probably the North Korean system is cheaper than the Cuban. Sanders even said that he might have pharmaceuticals manufactured by the government. Under such rules, it is completely possible for a single-payer system to cost less than the system we have now. The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

Warren, who had played the role of Sanders’ ideological sidekick, moved to differentiate herself. The federal government contracts out a lot of things, she said. Maybe it could contract out the manufacture of generic drugs. “This is a way to make markets work,” she said. “You don’t even have to use price controls.”

She believes in capitalism, remember?

One of the interviewers asked Sanders about his socialism, and mentioned a poll that said two-thirds of Democrats didn’t agree with it. He didn’t back down. Yes, he said. He was for healthcare as a human right, a takeover of the pharmaceutical and health-insurance industries, public college for all, a green New Deal, and a $15 minimum wage.

The new system would feel Spartan, and Americans would hate it, and probably it would kill off innovation from the biopharmaceutical and medical device companies. But it is possible.

No boos from the audience. A couple of other candidates made veiled comments — Amy Klobuchar talked about “grand ideological sketches” and Buttigieg talked of ideas deemed bold “based on how many Americans they would alienate” — but nobody followed up with an attack on Sanders’ socialism. Not the candidates, not the moderators, not the audience.

For the Democratic Party that is notable.

Mostly the performances followed worn paths, but occasionally there was a glimmer of the new. Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it. Klobuchar, who opposes free college for rich kids, said the real problem will be to train more home healthcare workers and nurses. “We’re not going to have a shortage of MBAs, we’re going to have a shortage of plumbers,” she said. Which means — what?

Warren was for prioritizing climate change, but she would also ban fracking. Klobuchar disagreed. “I see natural gas as a transition fuel,” she said. But the Minnesota senator dared not say anything critical of wind or solar — nor did any of the others. Biden briefly mentioned his proposal to set up 500,000 charging stations for electric cars. No one asked him where he expected the electricity to come from — or the money, for that matter.

Buttigieg opined that Democrats really ought to talk about the federal deficits and the public debt — a topic they’d been ignoring in all the debates — and then he didn’t talk about it.

Biden’s point, which he inserted when he could, was his experience. Others talked; he had done it. He made this sound petulant, but really it was an important point. Ideas are not everything. The presidency is a job in which experience matters, particularly previous time in a high-level executive job. Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush had been governors of large states, Jimmy Carter had been governor of a medium-sized state, and Bill Clinton had been governor of a small state. Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush were former vice presidents, and each had other political positions before that. Herbert Hoover was a famous Secretary of Commerce who had led the US effort for to relieve the Russian famine of 1920–21. Dwight Eisenhower had been supreme commander of Allied armies in Western Europe. John Kennedy, probably the least qualified of the group, had been in the House of Representatives for six years and the Senate for eight years.

Standards have slipped since the 20th century. A couple of election cycles back, I raised the question of the experience of Ron Paul, who was carrying the libertarian banner among the Republicans. Paul was a backbencher in the House of Representatives. The most recent president I could find who had been elected out of the House was James Garfield in 1880 — and Garfield was a frontbencher who would have taken a seat in the Senate (courtesy of the Massachusetts legislature) had he not been elected president. Garfield had also been a major general in the Civil War.

Many libertarians supported Ron Paul because they agreed with him. Few of his supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

People forget that in 2008 Barack Obama had been a US senator for only two years. His lack of qualifications would have been a big Republican talking point had John McCain not run with Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. McCain’s decision gave the experience issue to the Democrats. Obama also defused it by choosing longtime Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.

Few of Ron Paul's supporters asked whether he was qualified to be president, which he really wasn’t.

In 2016 Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Trump’s name was plastered on high-rise towers, but he didn’t own the properties. He’d been bankrupt. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter. Trump was intelligent enough to have earned an MBA from the Wharton School and to outwit his Republican rivals in 2016, but nonetheless he was unqualified to be president.

And he was not the only such candidate. Ben Carson, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2016, was a neurosurgeon, and in this cycle Democrat Marianne Williamson was a writer of self-help books who offered to beat Trump with a campaign of “love.” Democrat Andrew Yang is an entrepreneur of modest success, and Tom Steyer is an entrepreneur of larger success, but the government is not a business.

Consider the other five Democrats who made it into the January 14 debates. Joe Biden, with a long career in the Senate and eight years as vice-president, is obviously qualified. (Comments about qualifications are not endorsements.) Amy Klobuchar has been in the Senate for 13 years and Bernie Sanders 12 years. Elizabeth Warren has been in the Senate for 7 years and before that was a professor at Harvard Law. Not bad. Pete Buttigieg, who was mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for eight years — he just stepped down — is the least qualified of the five.

Donald Trump ran for president as a real estate tycoon, but that was a generous characterization. Really he was a promoter, a showman, a high-level bullshitter.

Now to age. In today’s America we are constrained not to say anyone is too old to do anything, even to be president of the United States. It’s “ageist.” Well, to hell with that. I’m 68 years old, and I freely admit that I’m too old to do a whole bunch of things. President of the United States is a taxing job. Twelve years of it killed Franklin Roosevelt, and eight years of it visibly aged Bill Clinton.

Until the election of Donald Trump, America’s oldest president was Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 was inaugurated a couple of weeks before turning 70. I saw Reagan up close in 1984, when he was 73, and he looked terrible. He served for almost five more years, but was visibly in decline by the time he left office.

Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either.

Trump would be 74 on January 20, 2021. Joe Biden would be 78 and Bernie Sanders would be 79. The red-faced Sanders recently had a heart attack. Biden mumbles his lines. Are Sanders and Biden too old? I believe so. Trump is not exactly a marathon runner, either. Elizabeth Warren would be 71, but she seems younger, and women live on average five years longer than men. Amy Klobuchar would be 60 — what in this group would qualify as early middle age.

The youngest presidents we’ve had were John Kennedy, who was 42 when he took office in 1961, and Theodore Roosevelt, also 42 when he took office in 1901, after the death of William McKinley. Bill Clinton was 46 and Barack Obama was 47. Pete Buttigieg would be 38, which is just three years past the minimum age set in the constitution. You might select a 38-year-old of striking accomplishments to be president of the United States, but the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana? Vice president, perhaps. He is a smart guy.

Finally, I look at the political tea leaves. As I write, it is less than three weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire. He has the highest poll numbers — barely — and the most committed base of support. I don’t think Sanders will win the nomination, because as his rivals drop out their support will move to candidates less radical than he. But this could be wishful thinking. In 2016 I thought there was no way the Republican Party would nominate Donald Trump. And it did.




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