• Ryan O'Connell

The Democratic Debates, Round 2: The Sound and the Fury

August 4, 2019

“Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall Who’s the Shrillest of Them All?”

If that’s the basis for deciding who “won” the second round of the Democratic presidential debates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders handily took the prize.

The Dynamic Duo were the media favorites in the post-game analyses, but they behaved eerily like Donald Trump. They poured scorn on other candidates and demonized political targets such as drug manufacturers and health insurers. They skipped over inconvenient facts, such as the high cost of their Medicare for All plan.

Both Warren and Sanders used remarkably harsh language—great for sound bites but likely to turn off many voters. They showed no inclination to try to reach moderate Republicans, conservative Democrats and other swing voters. They were focusing on their Base, the left wing of the Democratic Party. Only true believers count, as far as Warren and Sanders are concerned.

All in all, the two senators gave Donald Trump plenty of ammo for his re-election campaign. They bashed the Affordable Care Act, which is Barack Obama’s signature program and the Democrats’ greatest domestic policy achievement since Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the Civil Rights Act and Medicare.

Their relentless anti-business attacks will make it easier for Republicans to bash all Democrats as “socialists” and to raise money for the 2020 presidential campaign. That’s a ridiculous canard, of course, but it may resonate even with moderate Republican voters.

Politics and the English Language

In their quest for sound bites and zingers, Warren and Sanders went overboard. Sanders looked angry and, at times, almost deranged. Warren was more composed but strident.

When other candidates on the stage criticized their plans for Medicare for All and free college tuition, Warren and Sanders attacked them as “spineless” or, in a particularly Orwellian twist, accused them of employing “Republican talking points”.

Both senators described our political system as “corrupt and rigged”, with Warren adding that it is designed to “kick dirt into the faces” of ordinary Americans.

Sanders is the avowed socialist, while Warren says she is capitalist "to my bones". However, both senators demagogue the issues and demonize entire industries.

Warrren may consider herself a capitalist, but she constantly bashes:

  • Drug companies

  • Health insurers

  • Banks

  • “Giant global corporations”

That’s a big chunk of our economy.

In these progressives’ world-view, health insurance companies are “sucking billions of dollars out of our health system", as Warren charged, and their sole purpose is to deny claims for coverage. Drug companies are greedy and corrupt, jacking up their prices to impoverish the sick. Free trade is merely a “way for giant corporations to suck up more dollars”, Warren said, and Sanders clearly agreed.

Sanders and Warren--Leftward Ho!

In one respect, Sanders went further than Warren in the second debate. The Vermont senator thundered that executives of fossil fuel companies are engaged in criminal activities because they are “making large profits while they are destroying the planet”. So the head of Exxon should go to jail because his company produces the fuel that you and I use to drive our cars and cool our homes? If you follow Sanders’ logic, maybe we should be jailed; after all, we are the ones who are actually polluting the Earth.

Taken together, Warren and Sanders’ remarks constitute a frontal assault on our capitalist system. The senators have some legitimate complaints, but they go too far. The candidates don’t acknowledge that insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers take risks--huge ones, in the case of developing and launching new drugs.

The senators don’t seem to concede that companies should be able to generate a decent profit. Warren and Sanders continue to whine about Washington “bailing out Wall Street fat cats” in 2008; they refuse to acknowledge that the government did so to prevent a second Great Depression. Neither candidate mentions that the government actually earned billions of dollars on the bailout program.

Kamala Harris Stumbles

Meanwhile, Sen. Kamala Harris had a very bad night, turning in a wobbly performance. Harris tried to repeat her success in the first debate, by attacking Joe Biden from the get-go, this time for his middle-of-the road approach on health care.

But health care issues are not exactly the senator's strong suit; she has waffled several times about whether she favors eliminating private insurers or not. In her current incarnation, Harris apparently wants to phase them out, but over 10 years. However, the senator still has trouble explaining her position on this crucial issue.

By contrast, Biden’s views on health care are pretty straightforward. The former vice president wants to keep but improve the Affordable Care Act, and in the debate he made a good case for doing that. The former VP argued that most Americans should have the option of keeping their current private insurance coverage rather than being forced into a government-run program.

Biden emphasized that Medicare for All would be enormously expensive, citing an estimated $3 trillion price tag. (Sen. Michael Bennet also hammered on this theme, stressing that Medicare for All would cost $30 trillion, presumably over 10 years.)

Biden pointed out, too, that Harris’ 10-year time frame for implementing a new health care framework was risky, since over a period of two election cycles Republicans might regain control of the House and repeal the law. Harris did not produce forceful responses on either topic.

Snide and Snarky Didn’t Work For Harris

Harris’ tone was also off. She drew the wrong lesson from her triumph in the first debate. She skewered Biden on the busing issue in that clash, but she remained respectful. However, this time Harris was in full attack mode, with no veneer of politeness.

The Californian came across as snide and snarky, and her tone stayed negative during most of the evening. She addressed Biden and other candidates in a condescending manner, using phrases such as “you don’t understand” or “unfortunately Representative Gabbard got it wrong”. And, like Warren and Sanders, Harris accused other candidates of using “Republican talking points”.

Harris seemed to forget that she was on the campaign trail, not in a courtroom.

Meanwhile, Cory Booker scored points by keeping a polite tone—and smiling!--even as he criticized Biden for helping to pass tough criminal justice laws in the 1990s. We’ll overlook, as Booker did, the fact that most members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported that legislation at the time.

When Rep. Tulsi Gabbard launched a searing attack on Harris’ record as the Attorney General for California, the senator stumbled in her response. Harris pointed out, correctly, that she had never changed her opposition to the death penalty. However, she did not counter other charges, such as the allegation that her staffers did not share relevant evidence with defense lawyers.

Harris blew a second chance to defend her record when Anderson Cooper interviewed her after the debate. Instead of refuting Gabbard’s claims, Harris slammed the Hawaiian for meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2017. That was a cheap diversionary tactic, worthy of Donald Trump, and completely irrelevant.

Calling Pete Buttigieg

While the slugfest was going on, Mayor Pete Buttigieg delivered another solid performance in the debate. Buttigieg was dignified and clear in his remarks, and he stuck to his moderate approach. Buttigieg cleverly made fun of the Republican penchant for calling Democrats “socialists”, lending some levity to a rather joyless evening.

In a normal election cycle, you’d think that moderate Democrats would rally around a candidate who is young, dynamic, and eloquent…rather than Joe Biden. The former VP is a fine man, but he is close to 80 years old and prone to rhetorical stumbles and gaffes.

Still, Buttigieg can’t seem to expand his base beyond well-educated whites.

Maybe it’s because Buttigieg is gay, and Democrats worry that it would be rolling the dice to nominate a gay candidate. But would it be “safer” to nominate a black man, a black woman or a woman? Who really knows?

Buttigieg faces another obstacle. He has not been able to connect with African-American voters, who are a key constituency in the Democratic Party. However, Buttigieg has not referred fondly to working with segregationists, as Biden did, and he has worked hard to address racial issues in his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.

Another criticism of Buttigieg is that he is too young. Really? If he were elected, Mayor Pete would be 39 years old at his inauguration--just three years younger than John Kennedy was. Now that would be a torch worth passing.

All in all, both nights of the debates were good for the Republicans. Still, it’s possible the Democrats will come to their senses, tack back to the center, and avoid disaster. Let’s hope so. Trump has already done enough damage to our country.

The Wall Street Democrat

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