So thanks to last week’s two debates, we’ve now seen most of the Democratic presidential candidates in, as sportscasters like to say, “limited action,” and have had some time to ruminate about the results. Here’s my sense of some of the biggest takeaways.
>The Democrats generally are in denial about the health of the economy. This problem became clear immediately, as the first question on Night One, posed to Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, noted that her “many plans” for the economy come “at a time when 71 percent of Americans say the economy is doing well, including 60 percent of Democrats. What do you say to those who worry this kind of significant change could be risky to the economy?”
Warren’s response? Ignore the cited polling data and claim – presenting no evidence – that “Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.” For good measure, sharing her fact-free perspective at the outset were her Minnesota Senate colleague Amy Klobuchar, and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. And don’t forget former Vice President Joe Biden’s charge on Night Two that “Donald Trump has put us in a horrible situation” economically. Or California Senator Kamala Harris’ view that the economy is great only for those who own stocks.
No one is saying that too many Americans aren’t still being left behind in an economy that’s unmistakably shifted into a somewhat higher gear under President Trump. No one is saying that the economy hasn’t shown some signs of slowing. (See, e.g., this recent post.) No one is saying that the economy is going to be a decisively winning Trump issue in 2020. (This new poll throws lots of cold water on that proposition.) And no one is saying that because the economy is so far performing pretty well, Americans are especially happy about the overall state of the union. (Survey results like these make clear that they’re not.)
But no one should be feeling too great about so many politicians remaining so deeply in denial (or at least pontificating as if they are) about a state of affairs that is so easy to document.
>Kamala Harris is simply race-baiting. Let’s assume that all of the California U.S. Senator’s allegations about former Vice President Joe Biden’s record on school busing decades ago are completely accurate. How can the conclusion be avoided that she’s trying to portray Biden as remaining deficient as racial issues today, and in the process, stir up the worst kinds of national divisions? After all, he served as the second-in-command to the nation’s first African-American president. Black politicians, and especially long-serving black politicians, have publicly praised him as a long-time trusted ally.
In other words, whatever Biden’s past shortcomings on race, nothing could be more obvious than that they’ve vanished in every meaningful way, and in every way relevant to policymaking. It’s no longer possible accurately and responsibly to depict him as a problem for the African-American community. Harris’ indictment also indicates a refusal to acknowledge that individuals can learn, evolve, and grow, and to give them any credit when they do.
I recently spoke about this privately with an African-American friend who argued that the real Biden race problem that’s emerged recently stemmed from his indignant response to similar allegations and insinuations by New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, another 2020 African-American Democratic hopeful. In other words, Biden’s refusal to apologize for comments about racist southern Senators signaled an insensitivity to racial slurs (like describing African-American men as “boys”) that could well prompt younger blacks to stay at home in the fall of 2020, and boost Mr. Trump’s odds of reelection.
I don’t disagree with that political analysis at all (though I don’t consider it a foregone conclusion, either). But politics aside, that would point to the same type of intolerance, censoriousness, and sanctimony being displayed by Harris. More of this, America these days clearly doesn’t need.
>Biden performed better than I expected. The former Vice President and still 2020 Democratic front-runner has widely been declared a major loser in his debate exchange with Harris, and poll results reinforce that conclusion. I agree that Biden was poorly prepared for attacks on racial issues that he must have known would come that evening from someone. In particular, his substantive defense of his busing record – that he only opposed a sweeping federal mandate – did indeed (as Harris charged) ignore the decisive role that the Federal government has regularly needed to play in advancing civil rights when state government were either hostile or indifferent to the cause.
Nevertheless, Biden certainly didn’t act like the “Sleepy Joe” he’s been labeled as by President Trump, and that seemed like an apt description for some of his more disjoint moments in these early phases of the 2020 election (for example, this rambling discussion of the China challenge). He flashed temper (or at least indignation), he sounded articulate, he stood tall, his energy level didn’t notably flag. In fact, assuming that his health holds up (he turns 77 in November), Biden looked like a candidate who could mix it up with Trump on a debate stage. As demonstrated by the race relations storm he’s kicked up, however, he’s as gaffe-prone as ever.
>The Democrats have no grip on China issues. Sure, they generally acknowledge that China poses problems for the United States (but there’s some disagreement as to what they are). But few so far have offered realistic solutions to these problems.
For example, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, “I think the president’s been right to push back on China but he’s done it in completely the wrong way. We should mobilize the entire rest of the world who all have a shared interest in pushing back on China’s mercantilist trade policies and I think we can do that.”
What a shame that he was never asked why countries like Germany, Japan, and South Korea, which profit enormously from selling sophisticated industrial machinery to China, would want to see any slowing in U.S.-China trade when so many of those machines are used in factories that supply the American market?
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana agrees that the China challenge “is a really serious one,” but seemed most concerned that the Chinese are “using technology for the perfection of dictatorship.” He endorsed the stale and misleading “tariffs are taxes” trope, and insisted that “the biggest thing we’ve got to do is invest in our own domestic competitiveness.” He never explained if he’s OK with the infrastructure the nation unmistakably needs being manufactured in China and elsewhere abroad, or why “education” is so critical when children in China and everywhere else have the same capacity to capitalize on their learning as children in America – even though population considerations will long ensure that their wages stay orders of magnitude lower no matter how advanced the work they do.
Interestingly, Sanders is the only Democratic hopeful with a lengthy record of voting in Congress on China trade and related economic issues – always correctly (in my view) opposing reckless expansion. That explains CNBC’s ironic but on-target recent observation that “Sanders in particular has targeted Trump because his trade views overlap with the president’s.” And hence mushy Sanders statements like “I think we do need new trade policies that are fair to the working people of this country not just to the CEOs, but as usual, I think Trump gets it wrong in terms of implementation,”
Warren seems equally conflicted, agreeing with Mr. Trump that “tariffs are one part of reworking our trade policy overall” but lamely chiding him for engaging in “tariff negotiation by tweet” instead of “fighting back” with “strength and a coherent plan, not with chaos.”
Indeed, Warren has a detailed-looking plan for implementing a strategy of “economic patriotism.” It contains some good features, like what seem to be industrial policy proposals (with no real specifics), tightening up Buy American government procurement policies, and requirements that production that results from (amped up) taxpayer-funded research and development programs take place in the United States. But it’s unclear whether she realizes that tariffs are going to be central to their success. In addition, she appears quite enamored with devaluing the dollar as a trade policy panacea. And she puts considerable stock in government-run training and reeducation programs that, to date, have been proven failures and that have long (as noted above) evidently assume that Americans are the most educable and train-able people on earth.
If you’re a Democrat, or any American who wants to see elections held between the most qualified candidates possible, the good news is that the party’s hopefuls will have eleven more debate chances to up their games. Unfortunately, it might also turn out that the nation will simply witness eleven more events marked by hollow, and too often angry, grandstanding.