Observations on the July Democratic Debates — First Night

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Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are working as a team. I thought this was apparent from the start: neither slammed each other (despite some prompting from the moderators), both were in broad agreement about policy, both avoided the “American Greatness” boilerplate and kept the personal anecdotes to a minimum. The only other ones who evinced a degree of gravitas were Pete Buttigieg and (astonishingly) Marianne Williamson. I would not be surprised if Sanders and Warren have a pact, spoken or unspoken, to share a ticket in 2020 should the other win.


The Warren-Sanders synergy also revealed that the “progressive capitalism v. democratic socialism” divide is largely a matter of rhetorical style over rational substance. Like “postmodern”, “conservative”, “liberal”, and “jazz”, the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” have historical breadth and semantic depth: they can mean any number of things, and when one uses them, one has a responsibility to be clear what one means. Otherwise find something else to say. This was the strategy that Sanders and Warren adopted, talking instead about governance by money for the sake of corporate interests. The strategy worked.


John Delaney: “Democrats win when they run on real solutions”. Delaney means legislation that can run the gauntlet of a divided congress with obstructionist Republicans being a wrench in the gears, rather than a broad vision for the polity. This is astonishing. There were many reasons that Hilary Clinton did not win in 2016: a misreading of her chances in the industrial Midwest, the absurdity of the Electoral College, on-line propagandizing, and Russian interference. But along with these was her oblivion of “the vision thing” — running on “competence” and “realism” instead of political values. He, and the other “moderate” candidates, have learned nothing — nothing! — from the 2016 election. DLC/Bill Clinton style yuppie neoliberalism is dead. Deal with it.


The “trim the progressive sails or else we won’t defeat Trump” line taken by “moderates” misses the point about, well, democracy itself. In primaries, candidates within a party hash out their differences, and leave the final decision to the party electorate. If the chosen candidate wins the general election, the game changes: you push for those policies, but in the context of debate and rhetorical persuasion in the legislature. “Realism” is at home here, but not in the election. What’s “realistic” or “pragmatic” in the elections is idealism.


Marianne Williamson, for all her flakiness, realizes this. Her statements on Trump, on the sick state of American society, and on black reparations were pitch-perfect. It is weird when a political neophyte like Williamson sounded like Franklin Roosevelt, and most of the rest sounded like Gerald Ford.


“Beating Trump” — which is, after all, the first hurdle for the Democrats to clear and the sine qua non of this election — is going to be an uphill slog whoever is nominated. Trump is a sociopathic, racist, narcissistic ignoramus, but he knows only one thing and he knows it well. He knows how to manipulate people through rhetoric. He is a master at this, as most bullies are. He will slime Warren as an intellectual elitist and “Pocahontas”. He will slime Sanders as a socialist and a Jew (yes, he will go there. Just watch). He will employ his own racism to slime Harris as a racist (viz. Elijah Cummings). He will slime Biden as Bill Clinton redux. Whoever the Democrats nominate — and at this point I hope it will be a Warren/Sanders ticket, though I am not betting the farm on it — they need to face up to the galactic scale of the shit-storm that will happen, and to respond to it with dignity and firm resolve, and with fire in the belly. Something manifestly at odds with the don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor of Messrs. Delaney, Hickenlooper, et. al. There are many things that can kill the republic (which is already more than half-dead), but timidity is close to the top of the list.

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