CNN is to be congratulated on how well it choreographed the ceremonials that preceded the two nights of Democratic debates. The candidates were paraded out one by one, as if on a quiz program, and for the same reason: to provide viewers a chance to associate names and faces. The first four candidates shook one another’s hands, and then that was dispensed with because it would become too cumbersome to have more than that greet one another individually. The men were allowed to kiss the cheeks of their female competitors though sexual harassment officers at corporations and schools would advise against that. Then there was an old geezer color guard bringing in the American flag and every one of the candidates were very serious and respectful, hands over their hearts, as “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung. I remember, when a kid, joining the crowd at Yankee Stadium in singing the national anthem and I remember when I took my son to ballgames at the same place and he and I were the only ones who sung along with the piped in rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner”. Political debates are a good place to remind people of how serious an occasion politics is for the American people and the American system.
The advance prediction was that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris would go after one another and that is indeed what happened, the big news of the night, as the commentators all agreed, that Biden held his own even if he was not all that great at deflecting all the incoming fire and that Harris got flustered and didn’t have a rejoinder when her own record as a prosecutor was challenged by Tulsi Gabbard (who may think she gets a cabinet post for carrying Biden’s water). I wonder why healthcare is so dominant an issue. It was the first issue tackled at length by the moderators. How to expand coverage seems a technical issue rather than a deep one. Maybe because it is a way for the candidates to show their mettle, maybe because the real issue of Trump being mean and racist and someone who separates children from their mothers has to wait until the general election campaign so that it will seem fresh when Biden or whomever confronts him on stage with his cruelty, maybe because it is a marginal issue about which people can feel very self righteous-- although politicians have a way of getting righteous about just about anything, that being the normal tone of politics, even if Obama got elected without doing that, just being calm and collected.
Anyway, candidates were saying much too much trying to explain their views on Medicare for All. Harris, for example, is against a profit based health system which is easy enough to say but doesn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Sanders may think that we should get rid of all major profit based industries. He is, after all, a Democratic Socialist. Does Harris also share that view? She was a bit tongue tied about explaining her own health care plan and Biden made that clear though there were no compelling arguments to resolve the debate between expanded Obamacare and Medicare for All. I thought, going in, that evolution is better than revolution on this issue but Bernie or Elizabeth could convince me otherwise. Gov. Inslee of Washington was clear in saying that revolution was necessary to control climate change and Yang was for revolution in dealing with automation. Biden has not been a revolutionary in his career, but also, throughout it, Biden has also always been a progressive, on the cutting edge of criminal justice reform (both making it harsher and then easing up) and he has progressive credentials on women’s issues, as in his bill concerning violence against women, and the women on the panel do not even challange that.
Unanswered by this or the previous night’s panel was how to control health care costs without the oversight of the insurance industry. Doctors like to spend money on unnecessary and often painful treatments, but no one on the panel wanted to challenge the sainted doctors. That would be too contrary to the conventional wisdom which politicians are just not out to answer, even if professors make their livings doing just that. I would have hoped that someone would challenge the conventional wisdom on climate change. Everyone says it is almost too late to make a difference but that we still can; it's just that the date keeps getting moved up another decade or two. I am still waiting for the climate change advocates to call for the abandonment of New Orleans or Miami as cities that cannot be saved.
The second issue taken up in the debate, the order decided by CNN, was immigration, and the panel was focused on whether or not to let the criminalization of illegal entry stand, Biden taking the correct view that Trump is responsible for the policy now being pursued on the border, not Obama. But the images from the border crowd out the analytic problem of how to regulate the osmotic process of border crossings, people going in each direction, and what are the carrots and sticks to make the process work to the national advantage. That would be again to play professor and challenge the conventional wisdom, which is that the people who come over are either villains (the Republican view) or victims (the Democratic view). At least our border problems are not as serious as those faced by Europe where there is so much immigration from Africa and Asia that it is fair to claim that refugees are a major problem, even if still a manageable one.
The third issue taken up at length in the debate was crime. Biden was not willing to take on what is now the conventional liberal wisdom that crime statistics are the result of the incarceration policies of the criminal justice system rather than the result of places that become crime infested because of poverty and other associated circumstances. Biden was tough on crack criminals during the crack epidemic, but that is no longer a popular trope. This debate on crime and race has been going on at least since W. E. B. Debois proposed at the beginning of the Twentieth Century that Blacks were picked up and incarcerated for being Black rather than for crimes. The same reversal of causation takes place with regard to poverty in general, which can be blamed on the welfare system rather than on the underlying problem of unemployment. Maneuvering between the platitudes that you think ring bells with the voters is not an easy thing. You have to guess what people take as solid cliches on which you can build and also on what your more studied approach has led you to believe, though I am not sure that Harris or Inslee are caught in that dilemma, both of them settling for the conventional wisdom, while Bernie’s ideas are the same as those with which he left Brooklyn and Elizabeth’s are self developed. Biden has been in the fray so long that triangulating between truth and opinion is second nature to him.
Nonetheless, some of the debaters did score telling points even if they got lost in what were taken to be the major battles of the night. Bennet is right on to note that schools are just as segregated as they once were and so we have to find a new solution to that and so not go back to bussing, but that is a point he should have made last month and he didn’t find a good place to launch it last night so that others had to respond to it. Yang was right to point out that 85% of pollution is not made in America and so we have to look internationally for solutions. Yang was also right that the enemy of employment is automation not immigrants and that a guaranteed minimum income would come as a great relief to a great many people. He is one of those occasional outsiders to politics who does in fact have a great deal to contribute to the conversation, but I doubt if he will make the cutoff for the next debate. Julian Castro is right that affordable housing is key. It would end the residential segregation that is the cause of school segregation. And Corey Booker was right to say that Russian influence might have discouraged African Americans from taking part in the Michigan Vote in 2016 and led to Trump’s election. Worry more about direct interference about which we can do something than about a malaise among voters which is something we can’t specify well enough so that we can do something about it.
But conventional wisdom won the night, which it inevitably does in that most voters go on that basis. That was most blatant in that everyone who opined about the matter thought that Trump should be prosecuted after he left office for his crimes while in office. That strikes me as wrong, the equivalent of “Lock her up!” although understandable given every Democratic candidate’s loathing of Trump. But remember the wisdom of Gerald Ford who pardoned Richard Nixon. Did we really want to see Nixon traipsing around from one court to another, pilloried for what he did as President? It would have demeaned the office to do so. Yes, a President is in that sense above the law: we do not put them in jail because we hold the office to be so important. This is yet another reason to be very careful of who gets close to being elected. The Republican Party should have gotten together to stop Trump from being nominated; it was their civic duty to do so, and they failed at it. But that is too realistic a comment to convey to a debate audience not prepared to deal with it. Politicians can get just so far ahead of the voters.