Trying to get a Grasp on the 2020 Candidates

Cannot do it. Too many of them of various levels of notoriety. I fear we have entered some kind of Bermuda Triangle of candidates, from which we will never emerge.

The debates will be held next week, which means we all have to be able to get this straight in our heads so we can know which people said what and, assuming there’re gaffes, at whom to be outraged.

Meanwhile, Trump ran a rerun of a 2016 rally to “re-launch” his campaign and thought nobody would notice, there’s crazy tension between the USA and Iran, and several glacial regions are racing to see which will melt the fastest. . .

OK. 2020 Candidates. Focus. Oh, God. There’s about a billion of them just with last names starting with the letter B. Bennet, Biden, de Blasio, Booker, Bullock, Buttigieg. And that’s not counting the ones who are known by B-names, like Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.

I’m going to write a full sentence about my perceived zeigeist of each of the candidates, in alphabetical order. People with more knowledge of these candidates are free to differ with my perceptions, which are based on entirely limited research and passerby hearsay. (Those with an × did not qualify for the first debates. Otherwise it’s 1 for first-night, 2 for second night. Also, I’ve helpfully omitted Mike Gravel entirely.)

  • 2 Bennet, Michael; Got in a little late to the race, this Colorado senator is moderate, and seems to prioritize foundational reforms like campaign finance.
  • 2 Biden, Joe; After missing the boat in 2016, this former vice president is the fast food joint of the race: a known quantity, not great food, but dependable for what he is.
  • 1 de Blasio, Bill; Also a latecomer, this New York City mayor is repeating the grand tradition of that city’s mayors to consider (Michael Bloomberg) and possibly run (Rudy Guiliani) for president in a way that nobody really expects to go anywhere.
  • 1 Booker, Cory; New Jersey senator seeks to run a calm, building tide of a campaign that seems to focus on social justice.
  • × Bullock, Steve; Governor of Montana who is running on the basis of his ability to win in a part of the country that’s been supportive of Trump.
  • 2 Buttigieg, Pete; This mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is an up-and-comer who has attracted attention for being a sophisticated mayor of a mid-sized city.
  • 1 Castro, Julián; This former HUD secretary is running on meat-and-potatoes, chicken-in-every-pot kind of general good-governance.
  • 1 Delaney, John; This former representative from Maryland announced back in 2017 with a focus on cooperation and bipartisanship.
  • 1 Gabbard, Tulsi; This representative from Hawaii seems focused on an isolationist foreign policy.
  • 2 Gillibrand, Kirsten; This New York senator campaigns on helping to reinforce the safety net.
  • 2 Harris, Kamala; This California senator is running on her bona fides as a former prosecutor.
  • 2 Hickenlooper, John; This former Colorado governor seems to be running as a kind of generic progressive with a track record.
  • 1 Inslee, Jay; Governor of Washington who has squared his hole as the climate guy.
  • 1 Klobuchar, Amy; This Minnesota senator emphasizes her ability to win with rural voters and progressives alike.
  • × Messam, Wayne; This mayor of Miramar, Florida, apparently wants to cancel student loan debt.
  • × Moulton, Seth; This representative from Massachusetts is running as a kind of new-core Democrat.
  • 1 O’Rourke, Beto; This former representative from Texas is best known for his 2018 senate race, but hopes to use his popularity from that race to give him a leg up in this broad field.
  • × Quimby, Joseph; This Springfield mayor is fictitious and is not running for president.
  • 1 Ryan, Tim; This representative from Ohio is running on a new manufacturing and new industry message.
  • 2 Sanders, Bernie; This Vermont senator ran a major challenge in the thin 2016 field and hopes that momentum can be renewed in a far denser field.
  • 2 Swalwell, Eric; This representative from California seems to center his campaign around particular policy proposals for a handful of issues including gun safety, college education, and neurological and chronic diseases.
  • 1 Warren, Elizabeth; This Massachusetts senator probably should have run in 2016, but now the professor is at the lectern and she has lesson plans for everything.
  • 2 Williamson, Marianne; This self-help book author wants to pay direct reparations to the descendants of slaves.
  • 2 Yang, Andrew; This entrepreneur wants to give everyone a monthly check that’s larger than Ms. Williamson’s reparations checks would be.

In any case, there’s way too many candidates, so hopefully the upcoming debates will help put the ranking in a more stark contrast and let us begin to speak of a more limited field with confidence that field is solidifying.

On the other hand, trying to pin down even a single sentence for each candidate gave me something to grasp for most. But still a lot to keep in the old noggin at one time.

Could have gone for tag-lines instead. Like Booker seems kind of an anti-Chris-Christie, because Christie went out of his way to be pretty ascerbic where Booker goes out of his way to be fairly calming.

Anyhoo.

The Test of Congressional Oversight

People (such as the president) seem to think congressional oversight is all about finding witches, but in fact it’s not about finding witches at all! Oversight is the process whereby the congress reviews activities of the federal government, in order to improve the federal government.

It’s not only about when the executive breaks the law, taking funds that were appropriated for one purpose to use them for another purpose, or using a federal office to try to derail a properly-predicated federal investigation. It’s also for making sure that our laws work properly, that we appropriate funds where they’re needed, that we expand programs that work and curtail or rework those that don’t.

Oversight is a big deal. Think about kids in school. We could send all the kids to the library every day. It’s full of books, they could read them. We wouldn’t need teachers or tests or anything. Just stick them in a room with some books, right? Wrong. Doesn’t work out. The teachers and tests and principals provide oversight of the kids’ educations, so that if a kid doesn’t understand something, they can try again.

But as with a teacher in a school, oversight only works when there’s feedback. The teacher needs the kids to take tests and quizzes in order to see if they learned the material. If the kids all said, “We’re not doing it. We’re going to court so you can’t test us on this,” it wouldn’t work. So if the president says that congress can’t see some things, that’s a problem for oversight.

There are some things that congress can’t see. They don’t get to know what the president’s lawyer advised him about, because of one type of privilege. Another type of privilege means the president can get advice from staff. That’s called executive privilege. But these privileges are narrow. They’re like how teachers can’t ask what your religion is. Some stuff gets to stay private and can’t be used on the test.

But anyone who wants a kid to learn, or wants a government worth a damn, should favor reasonable and careful oversight. That’s one of the reasons people elected many Democrats to the House of Representatives in 2018: they felt that the Republicans were not doing enough oversight. The Democrats have to continue overseeing this presidency, as they’re bound to by their commitment to their voters.

And they will. They may impeach Mr. Trump, the equivalent of a detention in school, if he doesn’t take his tests. They won’t have a choice. You can’t run a school where a kid refuses to learn or to take tests.

What Should Candidates Talk About?

With the 2020 primary campaign still new, recent newsworthy questions involved issues that, while possibly illuminating about how candidates feel, don’t really get at where they want to go. Questions of imprisoned felons voting and whether the president ought to be impeached don’t really speak to the purpose of a president.

On the other hand, promising to pardon those convicted of federal possession, while welcomed, only serves a small minority of drug offenses and doesn’t stop the flow of new cases and new convicts. Which is part of the whole problem with election coverage and candidacy—that a president’s power is what it is, doesn’t get at the legislative problems we have, doesn’t tackle the problems in the states.

Put another way, if we chose our congress and state governments like we do the president, by national vote, the rhetoric of campaigns and the questions often asked by cable news would make a lot more sense. But we do not.

A more realistic stump speech would be along the lines of revoking the global gag rule, cancel the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, end the ban on transgender service, and other such policy tweaks. But, important in their own right, none of them would solve our larger problems. Getting anywhere anymore will take legislative acts. That means finding some way to get Republicans’ heads dislodged from their hinds. At least enough of them to actually move the country forward, where they’re currently dragging us backward.

Given the quandary, what should candidates talk about?

Talk about unions. Tell the people that rulings like the one the SCOTUS just handed down against class arbitration require employees of firms big and small to join together so that the fact of the strike can overcome the myth of judicial economy.

Talk about climate. Tell the people that driving costs more than the $3 they pay per gallon, and that the most valuable thing in the world is the world itself. That if meaningful progress toward carbon reduction is stalled by the oil trusts, the oil trusts get busted.

Talk about science. What’s a recent study, finding, discovery that made you worried or excited or anything at all? What has science done in your own life, be it technology, medicine, or even just plain old hope?

Talk about people. We’re living our lives spinning through space, and to make it all work out we need government and we need better government. What does that look like? Not sticking it to corporations or more regulation, but how to we make the process better? Talk it up, because government is one of those giant leaps for mankind that seems to get trashed a lot by the Republicans. Governments are people, my friend. They need to be properly cared for, watered, etc.

Talk about progress. What are the outcomes we should expect if the government works for the people. What are the numbers that show we’re not improving and what are the ones that show we are, and what’s the difference in government between how we handle those things.

In other words, talk about the fabric of humanity. Stop focusing on these silly short-sighted news cycle issues. Talk about the stuff that’ll still matter in a post-Trump world. Those are our gravest challenges. Those are the things most worth our time.

To Fix College Admissions

I’m already sick of reading about the fraud-in-admissions scandal, but figure that solutions are useful. There are a few things to note about colleges.

Foremost, it’s ridiculous that something as basic as education gets turned into a brand and prestige commodity. It’s basically a celebration of ignorance to prefer someone who learned the same material at a pricey school over someone who learned it elsewhere. If the educational standards at Megabucks U are really that superior, they should be adopted by other institutions. If not, we should stop pretending that the Latin motto matters.

Second, qualifications only matter to a point. If you have two otherwise-identical students and you’re down to weighing the choice of their musical instrument (“E plays harmonica, but e plays the mandolin. Which of those is more of the Megabucks sound?”), fuck off. And the broader situation holds, as well. Qualifications should be about whether someone has the educational background necessary to succeed, and not about chest medals.

With those two things in mind, the way that college admissions (and other things like hiring choices) ought to work is simple:

  1. Select out the qualified candidates.
  2. Randomize that list.

Simple. Unbiased. No-nonsense.

That includes legacy, wing-donors, whatever. It includes minority-preference, scholarship, whatever. Pick them at random. Unless you have very small class sizes or very bad luck, you’ll get a diverse selection that includes the offspring of megadonors as well as underprivileged applicants.


One of the big problems for Megabucks U is that the big donors actually reduce school competition and the spread of education. Rather than franchising or otherwise spreading curricula to others, in hopes of raising more money for the institution, Megabucks will spend more effort protecting its stupid name-brand. The same problem exists in politics, where overreliance on megadonors limits the political oxygen available for a party or a politician to make reasonable choices.

If a Republican megadonor doesn’t like the idea of wind power because e thinks it will mess up eir hairdo, suddenly the Republicans have to oppose wind power, even if their constituents favor it. That sucks. It’s anti-democratic. It can go screw.

How to Medicare for All

The question of whether Medicare for All is the best way forward is being lost in the non-conversation about healthcare. The conservative viewpoint isn’t to do a fair evaluation of alternatives, but to deny problems exist, and so proposals like Medicare for All are attacked relentlessly as impossibilities while any sort of balanced approach is neglected. Sad.

But let’s say you want to Medicare for All, anyway. You have several different transitional problems to deal with.

Transitioning Jobs

Jobs are one of the problems. Lots of people working in for-profit roles in healthcare administration. They do things like formulate the most lucrative way to bill (basically reverse-accountants) insurers and the government. But they also do other things like process claims. Some of those jobs will vanish, while others will be reallocated through a government contracting system.

How many vanish depends on the flavor of the new system. If it keeps fee-for-service, it will be more expensive and retain more jobs. If it moves to billing by condition (instead of separate billing events for a cast, x-ray, etc., you bill for a “broken arm” treatment) or patient, that’s fewer jobs, but lower cost.

So you have a policy tradeoff of choosing cheap and dealing with more job loss and more retraining, or you choose more expensive and deal with higher taxes. Some of the expenses will be paid for by expanding other parts of the medical sphere to provide coverage to unserved and underserved communities and individuals. There will also be some increase in productivity as societal health improves and therefore workers are more productive (they are also more productive when they don’t have to expend a lot of time and effort understanding and navigating a mess of an insurance system). But it’s still a transitional choice to be made.

Transitioning Off Employer-Provided Insurance

This is a big one. The best way to handle it is to set aside a basic Medicare for All structure that will partially replace the employer’s insurance at the next renewal date. The employer can continue to provide a lower-cost supplement on top of that for some period of time (say a decade), which will allow the winding-down of both the firm’s employee-insurance responsibility and the private insurer’s market.

Think of it like any other natural transition. You have a car and drive everywhere. Then alternatives come up and you use them part of the time, where they make the most sense. As those alternatives improve in coverage and cost, you use your car less until you abandon it on the side of the freeway. . . .

The beauty of such a plan is that it lets insurers keep their most profitable business alive (bells and whistles) while they give up the most expensive part (core insurance, including catastrophic stuff). As long as such a plan’s guns are stuck to, it lets them wind down responsibly and with as little pain as possible.

Also, the fact that different employers will have different renewal periods means that the business should wind down in a fairly steady manner.

Age-Based Transitioning

There’s long been talk of expanding Medicare down to younger groups. Pre-retirees, usually. That can still be done in the transition, and it again should benefit private insurers during their twilight years, as older workers are more prone to health events.

The Tax-and-Cost Problem

How do you pay for it? Is there a pot of gold we can get and it’ll solve everything and we’ll eat our free lunch?

No. Good, old-fashioned taxes. Something like the existing work-credit system where you pay in will be part of it. General income taxes another part. A third part might be a periodic discounted credit-purchasing period. This would be equivalent of a sale. Everyone loves a sale, but the government never puts things on sale. If you let people buy up extra Medicare credits from time to time, they’ll help to top-off the trust fund. There are other things of this nature the government could do that make a lot of sense.


Point is, there are a lot of opportunities to do smart transitioning. It’s not that hard to see the path forward on something like Medicare for All. I’m not convinced it’s the only way forward, but I am convinced it is a way forward, and absent alternatives, none of which the Republicans have shown any desire to entertain anyway, we might as well take it.