Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Thoughts on the First Democratic Party Debate

Some thoughts on last night’s debate as it happened (lightly edited for clarity)…

The lead in to the debate sounds like the introduction to a reality tv show, and throughout, Anderson Cooper’s strategy seems to be to minimize the substance and maximize the conflict.  Clearly, he’s uncomfortable with his role as a “serious” journalist…
The candidates are introducing themselves.  Lincoln Chaffee is looking like he wants to vomit, but emphasizes his lack of scandals.
Jim Webb touts his “proven record of accomplishing different things”, and almost forgets one of his daughter’s names.
Martin O’Malley decries the “deep economic justice that threatens to tear our country apart”.
Bernie Sanders launches into an attack on the structural ills of our democracy that have enabled our politics and economics to be captured by elites, taking the energy in the room up a half-dozen notches.
Hillary Clinton tells us about her grandmother, her grandchild, and promised tax cuts for the middle class.
I’m not how important tax cuts for the middle class are.  It seems to me that the important thing is to ensure that the middle class gets enough back for the taxes they and the wealthy pay in the form of free healthcare, free or affordable higher education, parental leave, and a decent wage.
We’re now over five minutes into the debate, and no candidate has threatened to bomb another country, indulged in hate speech, or made racist, misogynistic remarks.  As little regard as I have for some of the people on this stage, they are all a cut above the troglodytes who make up the Republican Party’s field. 
Hillary Clinton is far more polished in her responses than Sanders or the others on stage, unsurprisingly given the machine-like nature of her campaign.  I suspect that Sanders’ performance will illustrate some of the limits of his “showing up and telling it like it is approach,” particularly when the candidates discuss foreign policy.
In answer to a question about her flip-flopping, Hillary Clinton declares, “I have a range of views”.  As the Republicans have learned to their pain with regards to the Benghazi “investigation”, sometimes the truth has a way of surfacing unintentionally.  Hillary is working hard to establish herself as the leading flip-flopper and hypocrite amongst the candidates on stage.
Cooper asks Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win an election in the United States?”
A better question might be, “How can anyone who supports the kind of job-destroying, dehumanizing, irresponsible capitalism that has defined life in the U.S. during the past 50 years win an election?”
 Sanders’ forceful reply includes what to many Americans will have been an unfamiliar if eye-opening critique of capitalism and the ills it has engendered in our society.  “It is immoral and wrong that [those at the top] own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%”, Sanders thundered, pointing out that over half of all new income accrues to the top 1%.
Americans are used to being flattered and told how exceptional our country is.  But Sanders is repeatedly asking us to learn from what other countries do, whether when discussing universal healthcare, parental leave, or living wages.  He points out that one of the prime ways in which the U.S. is exceptional amongst nations in much of Europe and Asia is in the extent to which wealth and power have been captured by a plutocracy, and in the ease with which Americans accept the degradation of their democracy, contenting themselves with vapid homilies about American exceptionalism.
Sanders invokes Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as examples to emulate.  Cue applause from the Swede in the house. 
Cooper points out that there are 5-6 million people in Denmark.  He doesn’t point out that Denmark has a democratic, representative political system that has not been captured by the super-rich, or that its ability to generate a much higher standard of living for its average citizen is not based primarily on the number of those citizens, but on the type of contribution it asks those citizens to make.
Cooper attacks Sanders for backing, while mayor of Vermont, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.  Cooper doesn’t point out that the Sandanistas were the social democratic party that fought the imperial U.S. invasion of that country, and who were undermined by the Contra guerillas and death squads funded by none other than St Ronnie of Reagan (who didn’t recall).
Hillary Clinton pipes up with a shocker, “We are not Denmark!”  Clearly there are benefits to being Secretary of State, not least being able to make announcements like that.
“I love Denmark”, Clinton snaps, “but we are the United States of America…we would be making a great mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest nation on earth!”
Translation: we have nothing to learn from other countries, even countries whose citizens enjoy much higher standards of living and greater security and liberty.  She doesn’t actually beat her chest and chant “USA! USA!” but you get the idea.
Jim Webb has apparently referred to affirmative action as “state sponsored racism”, and is unfamiliar with the fact that African Americans are not the only group in the U.S. who have experienced systematic discrimination and degradation.  Throughout the night, Webb is giving the impression that he showed up to the wrong debate.
Hillary is strong on gun control, hammering Sanders who his Hillary-esque efforts to explain his past support for fairly indefensible votes.  Sanders is rambling a bit…if he had a thought-out, prepared answer, I’m not seeing it.
If only Hillary had been this strong on gun control abroad, instead of supporting the sale of arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, colonial regimes like Israel, and conflict zones like Libya and Syria. 
Channeling Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton says that it is not acceptable for Russia to take unilateral action in Syria.  To people in much of the world, even those who see Putin’s intervention as dangerous and cynical, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical given the U.S. government’s predilection for unilateral interventions that destabilize the world and kill loads of people.
Chaffee, struggling to hold down his bile and remind us that he is on stage, nails Clinton for her poor decision over Iraq: “There was no real evidence of WMDs…I know because I did my homework”.
As she should, Clinton is being asked to live with a vote that was either an indication of destructive neo-conservative tendencies, or of laziness and sloppy thinking.  I personally agree that a vote for the conflict that led to thousands of deaths of U.S. citizens, killed over 100,000 Iraqis, spread international terrorism to Iraq, and created ISIS should disqualify a candidate for the presidency.  There were plenty of people at the time predicting most of this.
Hillary’s defense is that President Obama “valued my judgment” and made her Secretary of State.  For fans of the President’s foreign policy, this might be a satisfying answer.  For those who have a problem with the escalation of wars, murderous drone strikes, the persecution of whistleblowers, and the protection of state terrorists, torturers, and war criminals, not so much…
Sanders is rambling and incoherent on foreign policy.  It’s really amateur hour, and there is no indication that his social democratic views inform his ideas about international events in the slightest.  Painful to watch.  His campaign needs to get its act together.  This is important stuff.
Web wants World War III, and promises to tell the Chinese government, “You do not own the South China Sea!”
Hillary blames the violence in Libya on the Arab Spring (which she manages to celebrate at the same time), and defends the overthrow of Qaddafi, saying that he had “American blood on his hands”. 
Again, to anyone with a clue, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical, as under Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the U.S. has the blood of innocent civilians from a dozen countries or more on its hands.
Funny how Hillary can celebrate the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that had the potential to change the Middle East, when she was the cabinet member most responsible for hamstringing the U.S. response because of her solidarity with vicious dictators in the region.
Her “realpolitik”, that has caused untold harm to the U.S. never mind people in the Middle East, was responsible for warping and frustrating democratic uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond.
Cooper wants to spend as much time as possible discussing the e-mail “scandal”, but Bernie Sanders shuts it down with a back-handed assist to Clinton, thundering, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails”, both trying to move the conversation on to matters of substance, and implying that Clinton’s candidacy comes with a whole host of distractions.
Hillary Clinton gives a much-need shout-out to early childhood education, the best indicator of subsequent success for children.  It’s a shame that this isn’t something that is well funded or integrated with the rest of the school system. 
Sanders emphasizes infrastructure, the minimum wage, pay equity, a progressive trade policy, free higher education, and a whole host of benefits that are often dismissed as utopian but which are the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Cooper needles Clinton, asking how she can solve our country’s economic problems when “You and your husband are part of the 1%”.  Once again he misses the point.  The better question would have been, “How can you solve our country’s economic problems when you and your husband have backed policies that benefited the 1%?”
Hillary Clinton has recently flip-flopped on the TransPacific Partnership (the undemocratic trade deal she hoped to broker as Secretary of State) and the Keystone Pipeline.  She declares, in a moment reminiscent of her “I have a range of views”, that “I never took a position on keystone until I took a position on keystone”.
That gutless approach to politics is, of course, what puts many people off Clinton.  This debate has seen her stealing many of Sanders’ lines, but the fact is these newly adopted progressive positions have come after years of triangulation, during which time taking a stand on an issue could have changed policy for the better.
Clinton then tells an awkward story about “hunting for the Chinese” with Obama at a climate summit.  Are we talking “Chinese officials” or literally, all of “the Chinese”.  It’s a small thing, but even Clinton’s language illustrates her nationalistic, simplistic approach to foreign policy.
O’Malley brings up the fact that both he and Sanders would like to break up the big banks that terrorized our economy and received a taxpayer bailout.  Both favour reintroducing Glass-Steagall, the measure that separated risky commercial banking from the everyday banking activities of consumers.
Clinton is opposed to this approach, predictably. 
She defends herself by claiming that she “went to Wall Street and said ‘cut it out’”.  We all know how receptive the plutocrats are to being asked to play by the rules.  Hillary also omits the part where she went back to Wall Street, took loads of their money, and pledge to defend them against criticism from Occupy Wall Street and other critics of their plutocratic rule.
Sanders points out that “going to them and saying, ‘please do the right thing’” doesn’t have a great track record of working, and observed, winning substantial applause, that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress!”
Sanders sketches out his plan for free tuition at public universities, something that used to be reality in states like California until St Ronnie of Regan came along and pursued a vindictive campaign against the University of California.
Hillary responds that she’s “not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids”.  Clearly, Hillary doesn’t understand some basic things about the social contract.  Traditionally, in democratic societies, adult generations pay—according to their ability to do so—for public welfare for themselves, the elderly, and the young.  Then the next generation steps up and replicates the feat.  And so on. 
So it would be the Donald Trumps of this world who, through their taxes, would be paying for the education of their own children and a great many others, supported by smaller contributions from adult members of the middle- and working-class.  This is a system that worked pretty well in the U.S. until the Donald Trumps of this world decided they didn’t want to live up to their social responsibility, and it is a system that works pretty well in many other countries in the world.
Intent on showing that she’s out of step, Hillary does the “When I was your age” thing, saying, “I worked when I went through college…I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished”.
In most systems, everyone does have “some part of getting this accomplished” because they pay for taxes that fund education and other public services.
And then this howler from Hillary: “I would like to see students work 10 hours a week”.  As someone who teaches college students, I can say that this is a really bad idea.  It means that students struggle to complete their degree, that they struggle to stay on top of their work, and that they are unable to focus on their education.  I suggest that Clinton talk with students who have to work through college.
If a university education is about encouraging our youth to become keen, critical, focused thinkers, and to master their subject or field of choice, this has to be something they are able to devote themselves to.
On a roll, Clinton defends the Patriot Act, cementing her right-wing foreign policy credentials.  Sanders says that he would “shut down” existing NSA programs that broke the law and violated people’s civil liberties. 
Hillary wants to prosecute Edward Snowden, saying that there would have been a “positive response” to his coming clean as a whistleblower.  Yeah, right.  Given Obama’s record of prosecuting Whistleblowers and harassing journalists?  Disappointingly, Sanders also says that Snowden should face consequences for breaking the law.
Chaffee on the other hand defends Snowden, praising the young man for shedding light on the illegal activities of our security state and the sponsors of state terrorism who run them.  He isn’t given much time, but of all the candidates, Chaffee is the one who comes closest to making a coherent critique of our foreign policy, actually mentioning the U.S. terrorist strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
Moving on, Sanders connects our ability to deal with climate change to campaign finance, pointing out that the fossil fuel industry has considerable clout in Washington. 
When Sanders mentions paid parental leave, Cooper sneers, “Really, another government program, and on taxpayer money?”
Cooper, Clinton, and the Republicans seem to have a feeble grasp of how social welfare looks.  Everything our government does—from waging war to subsidizing dictators to bailing out banks to “investigating” Benghazi—comes from taxpayer dollars.  I don’t understand what is so outlandish about asking people to devote their taxes to a program that would improve the lives of families, the outlook of children, the health of communities and, in the long run, likely save taxpayer money that is currently spent picking up the pieces of those lives that are broken when people tumble through the gaping holes in our ragged social safety net.
Sanders objects to a mindset that imprisons people for smoking pot while letting CEOs who commit terrible social and economic violence against individuals and the public get off free.
Sanders indicates that unlike Obama, he actually intends to marshal his supporters and use them against the Republican Party and its obstructionism.  Obama calls up his fans during elections, but Sanders intends to use his supporters to generate constant, democratic political pressure to generate change.  This is refreshing.
Hillary Clinton is flip, and declares herself “proud” for making enemies of the Iranians in answer to a weird question from Cooper.
And then the closing statements are in and it is over!
At the level of performance, Clinton is clearly the most polished candidate, and if you were unaware of anything else she has said or done in her life before the mounted the debate stage, she might even begin to be convincing.  But given her political history, the night simply highlighted her hypocrisy and lack of conviction, while demonstrating how her persona and command of her own narrative would make her more than a match for Republicans on the debate stage. 
Sanders, his incoherent babblings about foreign policy aside (something he and his campaign need to fix soon), was focused on economic inequality and injustice.  By embracing the idea behind a social democratic society—that its members can pool their resources and ensure that every individual can live a decent, secure life—he is opening new horizons to American audiences and offering voters the opportunity to ask their government for the kind of commitment that is routine in much of the world.

I hope that in subsequent debates, Sanders can continue to articulate these views and defend the version of democracy that he would like to build in our country.


  1. Almost real time up to the minute posts, kudos. Glad you enjoyed the debate. I agree that this was a much better and more substantive debate then the clown show on the republican side. If you could put a pin in this moment when it comes time to decide if you want to 180* vote for the republican nominee...

    I'll even give Bernie Sanders a lot of credit, I liked his responses last night, and if he can really drive up the turn out on the cranky old jewish uncle vote, maybe he can even have his 'revolution' as the nominee. Sanders: a brighter tomorrow, or at least one with ALOT MORE AGITATED YELLING!

    1. Glad to hear you thought the debate was comparatively substantive. As someone who has his ageing finger on the pulse of middle America, any other thoughts?

  2. You ought to get a twitter account Jeff. If you want to keep a record of your observations during a live event, that would be ideal.

    Based on everything I've read, Mrs. Clinton seems determined not to be out-flanked from the left this time. I don't think this has to do with her preference for triangulation, but with the financial crisis of 2008 which dismantled a lot of 3rd way stuff.

    1. I've actually given some thought recently to twitter. But my understanding is that you need a phone to register and I recently dropped mine in a glass of water at breakfast.
      She's still clearly to the right of Sanders, and probably O'Malley. But I think she's also more populist than in the past. Although some of her conversions are striking for their hypocrisy and cynicism.