2020 Democratic Debates 2.1 and 2.2

What are the issues? What’s all the debate about?

Climate Change

How long do we have to do something? How to reduce our carbon pollution? Do we invest in R&D, focusing on carbon capture, farm-based sequestration, carbon tax, more EV charging stations? All of the above? That’s the debate.

The main reason this is so dire is that the Republicans generally refuse to work on any real policy (and Trump uses executive orders and rulemaking to attack our home, earth). One apparent bright spot came in the Senate this past week when the Committee on Environment and Public Works unanimously moved on a bill that would direct $10 billion toward emission reduction and infrastructure built to mitigate damage from a harsher climate. But it’s a tiny step compared to the major needs.

Healthcare

To have a Medicare-for-all system or improve on the Affordable Care Act? Or will they end up the same thing—a public option slipping into single payer? That’s the debate.

Similar to climate, the Republican side is the lawsuit supported by Republican AGs and the Trump Department of Justice to kill the Affordable Care Act entirely. They have no plan for the millions who would be affected. It would be a major mess, with sick people thrown to the wolves, job losses that might tank the economy—the equivalent of dropping a legal bomb. They have no policy to replace it. Worse, the ACA is relatively conservative in its approach, so any replacement would likely be more liberal and less likely to pass the Senate at a time when immediate action would be needed to restore confidence and save lives.

The Republican lawsuit comes after years of trying to revoke the ACA without ever putting forward even a skeleton policy of what could replace it.

Immigration

To decriminalize border crossings or not? Should any future Trump-style president be able to use the mere fact of crossing as an excuse to separate families? If the law remains criminal, rather than a civil process, that proposition remains. That’s the debate.

(There’s also a lot of media-imposed strife on whether undocumented immigrants deserve to have access to healthcare, because. . . I don’t really understand the issue. They’re humans. Every human needs healthcare at some point. I think some are conflating access with unpaid access, which isn’t really the issue.

I understand part of the media’s MO is to show contrast, but if they can’t effectively articulate the issue, maybe they should do their job first. Once they have explained what the issue is, they can freely show contrast on it.)

The Republicans are much more divided, with a minority constantly eager to blow up any compromise between the parties—it’s been that way for over a decade at this point. Any deal is deemed by the Freedom Caucus types as a bad deal. But, as with the environment and healthcare, Trump is using executive orders and rulemaking to undermine any order or compassion in our immigration system.

Education

Cancel student loans? For everyone or just the lower class? That’s the debate.

On this one I don’t really understand why there isn’t emphasis on increasing the number of colleges and other options to drive prices down. But oh well.

But education also includes the need to integrate primary education. Which is really a need to integrate communities generally, because shuttling kids about rather than having them live in the same neighborhoods with their classmates is pretty nuts.

Once again, Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos are seeking to undermine any useful oversight of our educational system, including giving for-profit institutions carte blanche to reap profits while not providing education.

Impeachment

Would Trump being acquitted in the US Senate help him more than not impeaching him? That’s the debate.

Biden

Is his record from before 2008 more important than his record since? What about 2008-2016? Are those years off-limits because Obama remains popular? Is there redemption for being wrong in the past? How do his mistakes balance against his other votes and acts that remain positive? That’s the debate.

Trump

Vote him out. There is no debate.


In general, the second pair of debates seemed worse than the first in many ways. It might be useful to explain how people choose their candidate.

Let’s go back to 2008, when John McCain lost to Barack Obama. McCain was regarded as a maverick. Come 2012, Mitt Romney was the leader in the race. There were many in the party who kept trying on other candidates, only to find them ill-fitting, and Romney ultimately won the nomination and lost to Obama.

In 2016, similar situation except Jeb! Bush was the leader. Unlike 2012, the folks wanting change latched onto Donald Trump and did not sway.

It works a little bit different for Democrats—different values—but not much:

  1. If there’s an incumbent, a lame duck’s vice president, or a runner-up from the previous cycle, probably go with that or a surrogate for that.
  2. But, if a real, natural leader emerges (think John F. Kennedy), pick that one.
  3. Otherwise, go for something different than last time, unless those alternatives are obvious duds.

For 2020, a #1-style candidate could be Bernie Sanders. There’s some built-in support for #1s. The previous president’s voters, or their own primary voters from the last time around. On the other hand, Joe Biden kind of fits as a #1 with the vice president, having declined to run in 2016. There’s some confusion whether he qualifies, a whole cycle removed.

But if any of the candidates can break away, it will be on the basis of them channeling serious charisma—#2s. A few have had a moment here or there. Bill Clinton was the most charismatic figure of the past 30 years. Ronald Reagan also had good charisma for his time. Kennedy was very charismatic and well-spoken, so much so that it’s still a drinking game to take a shot when a Dem quotes him in a debate. For whatever reason, #2s are fairly rare.

But in 2020, Democrats might not be ready to call it with a #1. There are enough competitors that they can choose alternatives to both Biden and Sanders. There are several people adjacent to each of them, and if any of them show some charisma or other edge to their candidacies, the nomination will be up for grabs.

The other factor to consider is that this field must shrink. As it does so, some of the moderates will fall out, some of the liberals will fall out. The remaining personalities will seem more distinct. The choices clearer. The confusion of trying to deal with so many faces and names will fall away. Those who supported a candidate (donors, voters, and staff) who drops out will shift their support to others. That contraction will be highly clarifying.

Minimum Wage and Public Policy

There’s the Fight for $15, and there’s always been a push and pushback around minimum wage laws. It’s a good example of the problems and failures with public policy debates.

Some jobs should be destroyed

An important problem that the minimum wage deals with effectively is work that should not be done or cannot be done in a way that sustains a worker. We can’t pay someone to cut grass by hand (with scissors), for example. It’s a job that’s not going to happen. Even for a modestly sized lawn, you would have to work seven days a week, using ambidextrous scissors with both hands, working 12 hour days, and you still wouldn’t the the lawn cut before it grew higher still. The wage that would be required, as you would need at least four or six ambidextrous lawn cutters, would be so low that nobody could afford to do the job.

So, any discussion of minimum wage must deal with this first issue. That minimum wage effectively (and graciously) rules out some jobs that we must either find alternatives to accomplish or leave undone or make subsidiary to more pronounced jobs that are economically sustainable.

To put it another way, when an opinion or study talks about “job destruction” from minimum wages, we must not immediately light a candle, but ask if those jobs that might be destroyed (and, one imagines, eviscerated, mutilated, and dumped without a proper burial) are jobs that anyone should be doing. They aren’t economically productive enough to pay someone the minimum wage!

Are there non-economically-productive jobs that should be done? Yes and no. There are jobs that aren’t directly producing revenue, like school teachers and firefighters, but they are either investments or protections against loss. They are very important and those workers, often public servants, deserve at least a minimum wage. Often they are underpaid precisely because of the imbalanced mindset of work, where jobs that aren’t moneymakers are seen as inferior and undeserving of better wages.

The same problem in carbon

We see the same problem in carbon that we see in the minimum wage. You have what is effectively a negative externality to nonregulation—that in the case of minimum wage is the allowance for undesirable work to be performed at a substandard wage. In the case of carbon, you allow for the release of CO₂ for industrial processes that don’t merit the release (this also extends to other forms of pollution).

But then you start getting into what constitutes useful work and what doesn’t. People say they don’t want the government to pick winners and losers. Instead of gatekeeping, though, the beauty of a price floor is that it makes no moral or aesthetic judgements. It simply lets things that can’t cross the boundary bang their heads and fall down. They could either become efficient enough to cross the boundary, or they could be subsidized by charity or other arrangements (e.g., through advertising or alternative monetizations).

This sans-judgement approach is one of the reasons so many people see value in UBI or freedom dividends or whatever you’d like to call them. They similarly come without strings, and they supplant a lot of other programs (which either come with strings by their nature or because nanny-state Republicans seek to impose their morals on the poor).

The same problem in prisons and detention centers

The costs of holding people is already high, but often the conditions are lousy. Overcrowding, in particular, is a chronic problem. If the standards of conditions were higher, and if the costs of holding people were higher, it would force society to make smarter decisions about who should be imprisoned and for how long.

In lieu of prison or jail, some crimes would be decriminalized, or some sentences would be curtailed. In other cases, rehabilitation would be improved to lessen the chance of recidivism. But when conditions are poor or the costs too low, society tends to overincarcerate.


The bottom line is that for capitalism to work, it must have guard rails. If you don’t have minimum wage, fine, but then you need some alternative that basically sets down an ante that firms have to meet to hire people. (In poker, antes and blinds are used to make playing cost something so that action is forced; it can and should have similar effects in other capitalist systems.)

In general, one would prefer to find ways to make the basic flows and forces of capitalism work to the advantage of the whole system. The current regulatory systems often fail to do that, but the Republicans tend to take the wrong approach to redress this: simply eradicating regulation (while their other hand puts up regulations, but only on things they don’t like that benefit the poor or other groups they dislike, including women). Until we have a party that both recognizes the necessity of guard rails and the existence of in-built forces to erect those rails, we’re stuck in a limbo of misregulation or nonregulation.

2020 Democratic Primary Debates 1.1 & 1.2

Not who won or lost—when I watch debates, that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for personality, honesty, ideas. There are some notes of strengths/weaknesses, below.

Climate Realism

During 1.1 there was a question whether Inslee’s plan would save Miami, which he basically had to say yes to. You can’t stand in front of a city and tell them their city is going to go bye-bye. At least not yet. But it’s likely to, as seas rise enough.

There was a little bit of acknowledgment of that in 1.2 with Buttigieg differentiating between mitigation and stopping further climate change, but the general attitude of politicians seems to be focused on limiting the future damage without pointing to preparedness for the damage that will surely come.

Broad Agreement on Healthcare

The question seems to be whether to shoot for Medicare for All or let a public option evolve into Medicare for All. The differences of all sizes are moot at that point—they are all smaller than the differences that would exist in actually passing any bill change the healthcare system.

There seemed to be some slight nods to the bureaucratic friction in healthcare—one of its worst features is the difficulty of selecting insurance, understanding it, etc. But even those nods seemed very slight, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Half the pain of health conditions for a lot of folks is jumping through all the damned hoops.

US-Middle-East Relations

Everyone seems to agree war sucks, which is nice. The broader question of how to move the Middle East toward a better place wasn’t addressed. Some talk, especially in 1.1 about the Iranian agreement and tensions there. Indirect references to the potential for a peace dividend from a few candidates, without much to say about how to get there.


It’s a healthy field, as my report last week indicated. It seemed like there were more policy differences during 1.1 than 1.2. 1.2 felt much more about positioning than positions. Whether that’s because they saw how 1.1 went and strategized more, because of the contenders present, hard to say.

It felt like climate change was still an afterthought, and although there are only 11 more primary debates, it seems like getting more into the issues of climate would be helpful.

Over the two nights the strongest performances seemed to be (in alphabetical order):

  • Booker
  • Castro
  • Harris
  • Warren

Booker held his own on 1.1, not a complete stand-out, but certainly a contender. Castro had a few stand-out moments (also 1.1) and certainly showed himself to be worth a closer look. Harris, the only one I note from 1.2, seemed well-prepared and personable, but also had more time to speak so that probably helped. Warren has that professorial poise about her, and she’s always well-prepared.

The weakest performances came in 1.2, which may have helped Harris by providing more contrast. Swalwell jumped in with “me, too!” at several points and has some thing about the youth taking over, and Williamson apparently falls into self-help dictation mode whenever she is given a chance to speak.

Sanders (1.2) did alright, but at this point he’s fairly repetitive (if on message). One of his strengths and weaknesses is the fact that he seeded the ground so well with his 2016 rhetoric. That same rhetoric has been broadly adopted by 2020 candidates, both because they want to appeal to Sanders’ 2016 supporters and because it’s become part of the vernacular of the party (itself an oddity—Sanders still isn’t a Democrat).

Biden’s approach (1.2) seems to focus more on his record than is useful at points (doesn’t help that others want to remind us of negative aspects of his record). Others point to their records, but since Biden was around for so long, some of it feels like ancient history (for both the good and the bad). Harris rightly called Biden out for his anti-busing stance, but the electorate back then was more racist and the issue more visible (in 1972 it was largely seen as toxic that George McGovern proudly stated his pro-busing stance).


As the next debate (2.1 and 2.2) is about a month away, there will be some time for everyone to regroup and practice. They all got a chance to see how everyone else did, so the second round should be more informative as to who’s ready to rock and who isn’t.

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.