Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

12 February 2016

The Dems’ Post-New Hampshire Debate


Have you ever seen an old movie of medieval knights jousting? By the end of it all, they’re exhausted and covered with sweat and blood. They can barely lift their swords or lances.

So it seemed with last night’s Dem debate. Hillary and Bernie both seemed hoarse and exhausted at the outset, more so at the end. Hillary’s ubiquitous smile, sometimes radiantly genuine and sometimes painted on, faded at times. A seventy-year-old myself, I had to admire and envy both candidates’ energy and stamina. After this grueling campaign, which is only just beginning, it’s hard to believe that either candidate lacks the drive to be president.

Notwithstanding their apparent exhaustion, both candidates showed intelligence, knowledge, preparation, leadership and, at times, passion. Both stuck to the issues, except for occasional jabs at each other’s record. Both maintained a high standard of English, complete sentences, and complete thoughts—all of which you might have thought had vanished from the GOP debates, if not from GOP capability.

Who won? In my view, neither did. It depends on what you want in a president.

Both reiterated and entrenched the differences revealed in their pre-New Hampshire debate. Hillary has more experience in foreign affairs—a point that Bernie again acknowledged. Hillary again showed a propensity for making lists of issues, points, and possible solutions. She made lists in response to almost every question. She also made transparent pleas for African-American votes by wrapping herself in the President’s record and the halo of Nelson Mandela.

But presidents don’t make lists of points and options. They have advisors and underlings for that. They make decisions and set priorities. In neither the pre- nor post-New Hampshire debate did Hillary show any propensity or talent for doing so. She always wanted to keep her options open and have it as many ways as she could.

In contrast, Bernie committed himself, time and again, to bold and clear goals and specific methods. He did so with safety nets (expanding Social Security and Medicare), financial reform (breaking up the big banks), mass incarceration and police brutality (local-oriented reform under federal pressure), and of course with campaign finance reform (leading by example). Hillary tried to knock each goal and method down as unrealistic or unachievable. In so doing, she painted herself as the naysayer to Bernie’s visionary.

I hate to say it, because I will support and vote for Hillary, even enthusiastically, if she wins the nomination. But as I listened to her interminable lists, and her touting of half-measures as “experience,” I thought of a Donald. Not that Donald, but the other one: That Idiot Rumsfeld, who quickly won the easy war against Saddam’s reluctant conscript troops and then abysmally lost the hard part, the invasion and long occupation of Iraq. He became the author of a thirteen-year debacle and stalemate still under way.

What came to mind was the infamous memo Rumsfeld wrote just before Dubya fired him as SecDef, when he knew the end of this tenure was near. In it, he laid out all the options and problems, by number, like a twelve-year-old boy saying “See how smart I am? I thought of everything.”

That first Donald may indeed have thought of everything. But almost every key decision he made was wrong. Against the advice of his key generals, he sent too few troops. He had far too many troops and translators searching for non-existent WMDs, when they should have been protecting Iraq’s public patrimony from looting and guarding the huge caches of abandoned ordinance that later became IEDs used to kill our troops. He disbanded the Iraqi Army and the Baath Party, leaving virtually all Iraqis with substantial military-command or administrative experience on the sidelines with no incomee, burning resentment, and nothing to do. And he appointed as his “proconsul” in Iraq a man named Paul Bremer, who had, to put it mildly, insufficient experience with insurgencies, occupations, Iraqi language and culture, and the Middle East generally—and who countermanded the sagest advice of the most experienced diplomats on site.

John Kerry is an admirable man, whose work as Secretary of State has been exemplary, including a shot at denuclearizing Iran. But as a candidate for president in 2004, Kerry waged the very same kind of campaign as Hillary’s today. He claimed greater competence and pre-presidential experience than Dubya; who couldn’t? He pooh-poohed Dubya’s facile dreams of an Iraqi democracy, an easy victory and an “ownership society” in which people who couldn’t pay down loans could buy houses.

Guess who won? Dubya. Why? Americans are not naysayers.

In contrast, Bernie began and ended his discussion of every issue with a big, bold goal and what he would do to achieve it. He made decisions. He set priorities.

Call his goals and methods unrealistic if you will. Hillary did. But isn’t setting clear goals and priorities and making decisions on methods what presidents do? If you think so, then you have to consider that Hillary has virtually conceded the performance argument to Bernie, not in so many words, but by her own arguments.

All she had left was identity politics—a plea to loyalty from women, African-Americans and Hispanics for her and Bill’s consistent past support, except when she and Bill “played the race card” against then-Senator Obama in the bitter 2007 primary campaign. Only the Republican nominee, John McCain, stooped lower; and McCain apologized after he lost.

Loyalty and payback are big in politics. But isn’t that just politics as usual? Aren’t the extremes of loyalty and political retribution, aka vengeance, that we have seen over the last decade or so destroying our nation?

Youth seems to think so. It supports Bernie to the tune of 85%, as shown by post-New Hampshire exit polls. So do geezers like me, who remember what politics were like in our “Golden Age,” when pols of both parties tried to solve problems and even (gasp! shudder!) work together to improve things. You can’t solve problems with half-measures, let alone half-measures as your opening positions in bargaining.

What remains to be seen is how those in the middle, in age and the political spectrum, weigh loyalty, payback and cautious incrementalism against bold idealism and methodological pragmatism. The next primary is in South Carolina, where that contest will appear in sharp relief.

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