2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #2

The Thinker by Rodin

Gone were the two pretend candidates. After the first debate Jim Webb figured out he was too mainstream to run as a Democrat this time around, sort of like the way John Kasich is figuring out no one wants to hear him because he talks common sense. Lincoln Chaffee, a former Republican himself like Webb, got in the first debate mainly because he could, but wisely realized he was getting zero traction and the longer he stayed in the sillier it made him look, so he also dropped out. Which left former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as something of the odd person out in this second Democratic presidential debate from Iowa last night.

Like the first debate it was civilized and sober, a marked contrast to the freewheeling feel that often accompanies the Republican presidential debates. This debate though did get a bit heated from time to time, in part because the CBS moderators prodded the candidates. In one case Bernie Sanders did not rise to the bait when asked about a remark he made on Clinton’s emails. Clinton though felt it was okay to take a jab at Bernie on gun control, casting his votes against certain gun control votes to hers in favor. It put Sanders in something of a vise, because he voted the way his rural constituents wanted. Sanders though could land a little jab at Clinton by focusing on her catering to big banks, which she attributed to a natural reaction following September 11 when lower Manhattan had suffered such devastation. The logic was stretched, to say the least.

Sanders at least had authenticity on his side, but it didn’t seem to matter much. He pointed out that Clinton took money from PACs, while his campaign was PAC-free, and thus not tainted. The reason it didn’t help much is because Clinton is now a seasoned debater and not easily ruffled on the stage. And Democrats would be happy to have any of the three debaters as their party’s nominee. The debate was a bit sharper and at times heated, but I doubt it changed anyone’s preferences except possibly Martin O’Malley will get a modest bump with a solid and polished debate performance.

The terrorist incidents in Paris that killed 129 people on Friday of course were discussed at the start of the debate. The candidates agreed that terrorism like this was not the responsibility of America to solve alone, but generally was something on which America should lead. Sanders rightly pointed out that most of these sorts of wars come back to bite us. O’Malley got a gotcha question when asked if he could point to experience that would show he could handle complex international incidents like this. No governor of course would have this sort of experience so it was pointless to ask.

Sanders struck me as a little more grounded. In discussing terrorism, he argued that climate change was fueling terrorism. This is true in Syria, where a long-term drought is likely a result of climate change and feeding instability there. Unquestionably as the climate changes there will be more instability and mass migrations, and the latter will feed the former. Sanders was also correct in his analysis that the Defense Department’s priorities were pretty screwed up, with most of it going to maintain an inefficient infrastructure designed to address 20th century military problems, and comparatively little going to address terrorism itself. All candidates walked a fine line on immigration but unanimously agreed that Islam itself was not a problem, only those perverting it. There was none of the xenophobia against immigrants we saw in all the Republican debates so far.

All want to make college more affordable but Clinton wants to make is so students and parents are stakeholders. This effectively meant that she does not want a wholly free college education for our students. No one addressed the larger issue: with so many failing schools, fewer students are graduating with the skills to tackle college. A holistic educational solution is needed. Charter schools are probably contributing to the problem, as profit-driven schools have no incentive to keep poorer performing students.Overall O’Malley did well, but not enough to make him look unique or to offer a compelling reason to vote for him over Clinton or Sanders. Democrats are blessed with seasoned debaters as candidates, so if there are no major gaffes, the dynamics are unlikely to change. In this sense these debates aren’t particularly helpful for candidates gaining more popularity. I don’t expect much change in the polling in the weeks ahead.

Kudos to CBS News for live streaming the debate for all.

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #1

The Thinker by Rodin

Am I the only one bothered because you had to subscribe to CNN to watch the first Democratic Party presidential debate live last night? As best I could tell you could not watch the debate on cnn.com, at least not beyond a short free “preview” mode. You could watch it on cnngo.com, but you had to authenticate with your provider to get the debate stream, which meant CNN had to punch your ticket. My wife occupied the TV last night so I used the DVR to record it, but watched what I could online. With 15 million viewers just on CNN and lots more watching it online, the web stream stopped on me from time to time, which was frustrating. As for those too poor to afford cable or satellite TV, they were effectively disenfranchised. Debates should be made publicly available to all when they are broadcast. They should always mirrored on a C-SPAN channel and streamed on c-span.org if nowhere else. In addition at least one broadcast channel in each market should carry it.

For those of us moneyed enough to watch the debate live, the first Democratic presidential debate was quite a contrast from the first two Republican debates. Civility ruled, and even friendliness was evident at times between candidates. Five candidates is also a much fewer than eleven or sixteen. Jim Webb had a point that he was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise, but both Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee were also frequently marginalized too. It was mostly the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders debate. Each got about half an hour of airtime, nothing to complain about in a two-hour debate. If there were ruffled feathers, it was mostly from candidates toward the moderators for cutting them off.

A lot of coaching and practice certainly helped. For Clinton, the practice was mostly an exercise in personality refinement. For Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, it was getting up to speed on foreign policy, not one of his strong suits. For Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee it was mostly about introducing themselves to a national audience. Bernie Sanders was new to a lot of viewers, principally the African American audience. Clinton exceeded expectations and succeeded in looking presidential and polished. Kudos go to her makeup artist, who succeeded in subtracting about ten years from her face. At age 74, it was far too late for Sanders, but at least he did not have the expectation that he was supposed to look younger.

The most embarrassing candidate was clearly former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, rarely known or seen outside of Rhode Island. Looks should never disqualify a candidate, but he not only sounded awkward, he looked viscerally awkward. And he was simply not prepared for tough questions. I felt sorry for him after a while because he was so outclassed by the other candidates.

Martin O’Malley modeled the happy white middle-aged Democratic candidate of forty years ago, the sort of candidate we nominated by default in the past because he looked so familiar and harmless. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy but he at least radiated sensibility. Unfortunately, his record as Maryland governor was spotted at best, as was his tenure as Mayor of Baltimore. He was easy to smile at when speaking, but he seemed a bit milquetoast. There just wasn’t anything there that drew you to him as a compelling reason to prefer him to the others.

Jim Webb too was new to most viewers. A one-term senator from Virginia, Webb ran a surprisingly successful quixotic campaign for senate some years back. He resonates strongly with a part of the Democratic Party that has sort of slipped away: the moderate domestically but hawkish militarily type. I think Webb would probably be a pretty good general election candidate, as he may be the only moderate in either party running for president so he would draw independents like crazy. He has sterling credentials and a firm grasp on the commander in chief side of being president. Unfortunately, there is no party for moderates anymore. The Democratic Party though at least embraces moderates. The Republican Party simply spurns them.

As the debate dragged on not only did it become the Hillary vs. Bernie debate but the choice seemed to be pragmatic progressive (Clinton) vs. ideological progressive (Sanders). Clinton impressed me in the debate. She did not make me anxious to vote for her, but she did reduce my anxiety should she win the Democratic nomination. She deftly handled the mostly bogus controversies surrounding her, in one case with the assistance of Sanders. While Clinton was polished, Sanders was too. Eloquent and passionate, he seemed to be the only candidate on the stage that was just being himself. Most observers gave Clinton the edge in the debate, but Sanders raised two million dollars from people after the debate and Google was overrun with queries from people wanting to learn more about socialism. Sanders was not just passionate, but passionately convincing. His long career demonstrates an ability to correctly line up on the issues.

So it should make for an interesting campaign and I look forward to more debates. Clinton proved herself not to be the stereotype projected by her opponents. Sanders doubtlessly got a lot of interest from people who did not know what he is about. Webb, O’Malley and Chafee are on the way out to pasture; they just don’t know it yet. Clinton needs to keep her projection going forward and Sanders needs to see if he can develop a critical mass of progressives to overwhelm Clinton’s natural advantages, principally with blacks and women. It all depends on just how fed up the American people actually are in this election. If the polls are right, Clinton should make no assumptions about a smooth path to the nomination.

Not quite ready for Hillary

The Thinker by Rodin

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

Liz Warren for president?

The Thinker by Rodin

Moveon.org members are convinced: Massachusetts’s senator Elizabeth Warren is their overwhelming pick for president in 2016. They want to convince her to run although so far Senator Warren is proving tone deaf. When prompted by NPR recently she didn’t say she would never run, but kept reiterating she is not running for president. Her groupies may take this as an encouraging sign. I won’t be reading too much into it.

Senator Warren is one of a number of boutique candidates or candidate possibilities of interest to various groups. Often the most interested ones are the potential candidates themselves. They are already out there preening and posturing, and that includes soon to be ex-governor Rick Perry of Texas who is hoping his new ugly black framed glasses will look presidential this time around. It also includes “Mr. Sweater-vest” and former anemic Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but also quite clearly Jeb Bush and so many other Republicans in waiting that it’s hard to list them all.

On the Democratic side until recently there has been no one willing to challenge Hillary Clinton, should she announce her candidacy for president. Despite her public hedging, there is little suspense about if she will run, just when she will announce it. My former senator Jim Webb apparently wants to run, or is at least working on an exploratory committee, which is the first step. There is also the soon to be former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley that is thinking maybe he should run, particularly if Hillary looks vulnerable or if by running he might be on her ticket. And then there are the boutique candidates who really have no chance but want to promote their issues. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who is actually a socialist and caucuses with the Democrats, is considering running to call attention to the problems of the middle class. Warren’s supporters, and there are many of them, want her to do the same thing.

Watching Warren speak is interesting. She is a compelling speaker. Unlike most politicians, she speaks from her heart. She is genuine and weirdly enough she actually cares passionately about her issues, which is mostly the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and the oversized influence of Wall Street on our lives. Most recently she made the news criticizing the recent “cromnibus” bill that funds most of the federal government through fiscal year 2015, in particular the provisions slipped in to ease the ability of banks to invest in derivatives. Her mixture of authenticity, scholarship and passion is definitely unique at the moment, and it doesn’t hurt that she is a woman as well.

But Liz Warren for president? She seems to be smart enough to realize her own limitations, which speaks well of her. She is working hard to restore America’s middle class, but she is going up against institutional forces that are likely to defeat her. Still she keeps at it, and it is heartening to see her not lose hope in what seems like a lost cause. She makes most progressive Democrats feel downright tingly. She connects with us in a way that we haven’t felt since Barack Obama entered the national stage.

Liz Warren has many wonderful attributes, but she is no Barack Obama, at least not yet. Liz is focused like a laser on addressing the problems of the middle class. The problem with focus though is you tune out all the other stuff about governing. It’s not fair to say she is disinterested about things like defense spending, terrorism or race relations. She probably knows quite a bit about these things. She just chooses not to open her mouth much on them. That was not the case with Barack Obama. While he may not have had much experience in these areas, he certainly understood them and gave thoughtful, analytical and nuanced positions on all these issues. He looked and sounded like presidential material because someone who is going to be president should see the big picture. Rarely has our national chessboard been so complex. We need someone who has the political skills to handle the multifaceted, 24/7/365 aspects of being president.

Liz Warren simply hasn’t demonstrated this. Progressive Democrats’ hearts may skip a beat when she opens her mouth but that’s not a particularly good reason to nominate anyone for president. She is passionate and persistent, but was she to be president she would face most of the same issues President Obama has struggled with. She would likely be dealing with a Congress controlled by Republicans. To govern she would have to make deals, assuming anyone on the other side wanted to make a deal. Lately Republicans have been all about obstinacy. It’s all well and good to stand up for your values, but being president requires compromise. It means selectively sticking up for certain things and giving up on others. She makes noise in the Senate but so far she hasn’t done much to effectively cross the aisle, not that it’s an easy thing to do when your opposition basically won’t concede anything.

Liz is guilty of being popular, but being popular does not mean that someone is presidential material. I like Liz a lot. I expect in 2015 when my wife and I move to Massachusetts that she will be my senator, and I will be glad to call her my senator. But she is not yet presidential material. It seems that she understands this too, which speaks highly of her. So I don’t expect her to be a candidate, no matter what the members of MoveOn.org want, because she has too much common sense.

I’d rather see her move the needle where she can and continue to be a top fundraiser for Democratic candidates. I want her to be our chief cheerleader, because we will need plenty of enthusiasm from the rank and file to win in 2016 and maybe take back the Senate. Absent evidence I don’t yet see in her, I hope she won’t run for president. If you are one of her supporters, I hope you will see that she can be far more effective for our side right where she is.