The First Democratic August Debate

The general consensus about the first night of the two days of debate is that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders were, as the NY Times put it, a “tag team” fielding questions about their “radical” health care and other economic proposals. I agree with that but would add that I think they did a very credible job of doing so and, to the extent that the parameters of a debate allow that, made what seemed to me convincing arguments though not conclusive ones. They explained that Medicare for All was not all that radical but just a meaningful extension of Johnson Era programs. They were convincing in arguing that people would, in sum, pay less for their insurance than they now did. They never had to address whether anybody would be left behind in the transition but did point out that unions could then go about their business of securing higher wages. It did occur to me that the argument against change, which is that it would be disruptive of present arrangements and so some people might suffer, is the one that is used whenever a new program comes along, whether it is to control toxic plant emissions, or regulate child labor, or most recently, to enact Obamacare. The transition passes, just as the noise of construction on Second Avenue has passed and new high rises are being built all the time to take advantage of the new subway.

Those two, Bernie and Elizabeth (we call all Presidential candidates by their first name, at least since Hillary first ran, and I am not sure that is conferring on them their necessary putative dignity) also made the case that the extraordinary profits of insurance companies and pharma would be plowed back into the healthcare industry, that also being the standard socialist argument that lack of competition increases efficiency. They also were challenged for advocating a Green New Deal Plan that included guaranteeing jobs to everyone, when that seems to me hardly a radical idea at all but a part of liberalism that reaches back at least to the Humphrey Hawkins bill of 1970. We should get back on that liberal agenda even if it is now regarded as radical and that agenda includes other recycled ideas like a higher guaranteed minimum wage, easier union organization, and two weeks guaranteed summer vacation, such as exist in European countries. It is alright to borrow from European socialism and the corporate state of France even if not from the self proclaimed socialist state of Venezuela.

Warren sidestepped whether a wealth tax was constitutional and Sanders sidestepped why it was even necessary to go through a transition process to his Medicare for All even if incremental changes could provide consumers what they need even while insurance companies kept making money. What bothers me is the anti- one percent animus that motivates both of these candidates but a debate is not the place to go into the theoretical issue of whether that small elite is wagging the dog of the economy or are just the recipients of profits made available to them by the economy, they just as subject to it as poorer citizens. The rich are out to feather their nests but they do not control the economy as much as Warren and Sanders think. They are just greedy and so no different from cab drivers who took out large loans to buy taxi medallions that lost much of their value. My view is bail out everybody, not just the rich when they go underwater. 

It is hard to believe that the primary campaign will be settled on the basis of ideological issues. What the back and forth convinced me is that Sanders and Warren are articulate enough to carry the battle to Trump and all of them seemed more credible as Presidents than Trump, with the possible exception of spiritual writer Marianne Williamson who sidestepped the question of whether she was anti-psychologist by engaging in the platitude that our medical system should be pro-health rather than anti-disease in its orientation, as if social policy is made out of thinking in a kind way about things. Amy Klobecher also did not help herself. She has a good deal of charm, by my lights, which is not a sexist remark because Barack Obama got elected on charm. If you have it, flaunt it. But she spends too much of the few minutes allotted to her telling voters how she won all of Minnesota’s counties. That makes her seem provincial rather than ready for the big time. 

What I found curious about the first night’s debate was that it barely touched on foreign policy. Bernie seemed unprepared to deal with these issues when he said we should turn to the United Nations to resolve differences. Not that it has been much good at that since Korea, when the United For Peace Resolution restructured the United Nations by allowing a vote of the General Assembly to supplant a vote by a Security Council prevented from acting because of the veto power of one of the permanent five members of the Security Council and so allowed the passage by the General Assembly of a resolution to come to the defense of Korea, that providing a cover for the United States to go into Korea, which it was doing anyway. The UN is an ancient institution that was not able to block the United States from going into Iraq. So Bernie is whistling an antiquated tune.  

Noone brought up the fact that the President is very irresponsible about foreign policy even if he hasn’t gotten us into much trouble yet. Getting rid of Dan Coates had apparently not sunk in by the time of the Tuesday debate and the danger posed by putting a pure Trump ranter into the position of Director of National Intelligence so that Trump will get the advice he wants to hear. Maybe the Democratic candidates don’t think foreign policy carries much weight with the voters, as well it may not. Also missing, other than a few derisive remarks about Trump, was a full fledged attack on his racism as something unpardonable by an American President, we not having had an overt one since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. Maybe there are just so many ways to say that Trump is a disgrace and that has been said so many times. Joe Biden is closer to the mark when he points to Trump as being the problem and predicts that after Trump the Republicans will again come to style themselves as at least a faintly respectable party, however much they may remain in the pockets of the rich. They have the courage of summer soldiers.

And maybe not even that. Pete Buttigieg was right on when he said at the debate that the Republicans will attack any Progressive who gets the nomination as an advocate of socialism but will also chastise any moderate who gets the nomination for also being a socialist. We know what the Trump campaign plan is: demonize the opposition by calling the foul names and associate them with the unwashed masses, which these days means people from poverty neighborhoods. A nominee will have to figure out a way to take on and deflect the slime though I don’t know that last night any of the candidates had any taste for that task.