The September Democratic Primary Debate

Commentators quickly summed up the horse race aspects of last night’s Democratic Primary Debate. Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill, two former United States Senators, said on different networks that nothing had changed in that the three leading candidates, Biden, Sanders and Warren, were still in the lead, having provided acceptable though not outstanding performances, and that some of the outlier candidates, like Amy Klobacher and Corey Booker, had made some well put points. Only Julian Castro and Andrew Yang seemed to falter, Castro for aiming a haymaker at Biden that failed and which made Castro look cruel, and Yang for offering an Oprah like gift to some citizens, an offer that drew laughter from most of the candidates. So things are settling in, the longer Biden remains in the lead, the longer he is likely to maintain it, his occasional stumbles notwithstanding. So much for the feel and strategies of the candidates vis a vis one another.

I want to attend, instead, to what were the topics selected by the journalists to ask questions about, and what were the presumptions embodied in both the questions and answers. It is interesting to note, as some commentators have, that neither impeachment nor Warren’s wealth tax, both worthy of debate, were brought up in the course of the debate. Nor was abortion or the Supreme Court. What was brought up and how was that handled?

The issue that led off the debate was health care and that divided the moderates, like Biden and Klobacher, from the “Progressives”, like Sanders and Warren. There is no getting around that divide. The question that I have, however, is why this is a major issue at all rather than a technical one about the pace of introducing more comprehensive health care into the national system of entitlements. One would think that no one disputes the wisdom of moving in that direction, except that all the Republicans do, even though they have no plan to replace Obamacare with something better (or even worse). Issues become big deals even if the eventual outcome is inevitable. LBJ’s political legacy is that he got through two civil rights bills when it was clear from the time of Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces and Brown v. Board of Education that some legislation of the sort that was passed in the wake of the Kennedy Assassination would have to be passed. But the thing is that it is the moment when the legislation is passed that is key and the hard work of gathering support for it has to take place. Conservative Republicans knew that civil rights legislation was inevitable but they stayed away from it because of their immediate electoral interests. Similarly, no on except a Trump operative thinks the nation can go back on Obamacare, now that Obamacare is firmly installed in the nation, it is only local politics and the White House make the Republicans insist they will repeal it or get the Courts to throw it out, even if that is not what their constituents want. This is the messiness of democratic politics: it takes a lot of pontificating to embed those policies which everybody thinks are obvious.

The same is true of gun legislation, which came up most starkly when Beto O'Rourke called for a compulsory by-back of assault rifles. That does not seem like a good idea because the enforcement of such a provision would rquire arresting numbers of hard core gun enthusiasts and play into the hands of those who think that the evil government is out to take over the country. Shades of Ruby Ridge and Waco. It seems a better idea to ban the sale of such weapons and to engage in a voluntary buy-back, but O’Rourke is so upset over the El Paso shootings that he doesn’t care if his policy is a wise one, just as it seems that Kamala Harris doesn’t care when Joe Biden says that her plan to ban gun sales she doesn’t like by executive order is unconstitutional. She answers him by sweetly saying, well, we have to do something. She is not to be trusted with the White House. 

Elizabeth Warren, for her part, cavalier about getting rid of the Senate filibuster, she not considering that such an action would come back to bite if the Republicans ever took back the Senate (assuming the Democrats win it in 2020). Don’t tinker too much with long serving institutional arrangements for temporary advantage, and especially not with one of the defining aspects of the U. S. Senate. It makes more sense for the Democrats to pass a law, should they control both the Congress and the Presidency, requiring the Senate to take up a nomination once it is made by the President, Mitch McConnell having found a loophole in the “advise and consent” provision of the Constitution that allowed him just not to bring up Obama’s nomination of Merrill Garner to the Supreme Court. But nobody brought that up. Too much inside baseball.

The second issue that the moderators offered up for discussion after health care was immigration, which provides an occasion for lambasting Trump, as was the third, criminal justice, that followed by trade, foreign policy, climate change and education, which shows a descending order of importance for these issues, climate change and education somewhat afterthoughts where candidates can offer conventional platitudes without much substance to back up what they say. The sheer ignorance of candidates about educational policy is astonishing, they much thinner here than on foreign policy or health care, and that may be because educational policy is and has always been more a matter of fads, of what feels right, rather than evidence based. Kamala Harris thinks Black students need more Black teachers, although we tried to recruit those in the Seventies and that didn’t succeed nor did it make much difference, but it feels right as a way to unblock the progress of poor students of color into the higher reaches of education. Biden is correct that residential segregation is a more important determinant of good education than what goes on in school which, as Andrew Yang suggested, accounts for only a third of the basis of student achievement, non-school factors like family, community and social class accounting for the rest.

It is clear which issues the candidates are well briefed on. Biden knows trade issues even if he is somewhat garbled in getting out what he knows, while Bernie doesn’t know much about Afghanistan, and so would be a poor choice to have in the White House when it comes to foreign policy even if he was right to vote against the War in Iraq while Joe Biden admits to have been wrong to give Bush a negotiating tool which the President then treated as permission to go to war. Bernie and Elizabeth both know about tariffs because they have clear cut ideological commitments. Warren thinks that only corporations benefit from trade deals (forgetting that the Trans Pacific Partnership would have isolated China from the rest of Asia and so was important for the relationship between China and the U. S, which is something Biden knows very well.)

I thought the most disappointing part of the debate was that the candidates did not go after Trump hard enough. They did not find ways to convey just how awful and un-American are the conditions on the border, that the American tradition is a struggle between those who want to limit immigration and those who want to open it up and that the nation has hugely benefited from a loose immigration policy. This is a values issue: merit immigrants versus the loads of unwashed whose grandchildren go on to Harvard and Yale. Also, that the President is so scatterbrained and unreliable that he might get us into serious trouble, not just line his own pockets, that seeming to be the most important thing he considers himself to be in the White House to do. These are unusual times, not because we are burdened with problems or are in any great danger, but because the President is such an evil and unmoored person. The candidates could say that is the issue, not which version of health care they prefer. That should scare the populace into voting for whomever is the eventual Democratic nominee.