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

15 April 2016

The Dems’ Brooklyn Debate


Was it the abysmal quality of the GOP candidates and their debates? Or was it Bernie’s and Hillary’s stellar quality? Whatever it was, it worked. Last night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn was not just the best Dems’ debate. It was the best of the whole campaign season so far.

Over two decades, Fox has made us Yanks comfortable feeling slimy. We slime ourselves with teenage male taunts about the relative size of penises or whose wife is sexier. We slime ourselves with open and unrestrained baiting on race, religion and ethnicity. We slime ourselves in bashing the poor—something that Jesus and every great leader of every great religion told us not to do.

If anyone had written a story in which serious presidential candidates acted this way, a reader would have called it not just fiction, but unbelievable, unrealistic fiction. Until this year. Until it actually happened.

Last night the Dems’ Brooklyn debate reminded us what democracy means. It means taking serious issues seriously. It means hitting hard but hitting fair. It means focusing on issues and approaches that affect real people who must suffer the results. It means illuminating the differences between two candidates without demeaning either.

The Dems’ debate last night did all that. Furthermore, it avoided what all the slathering media baboons tried to foment this week. It avoided a Bernie-Hillary mud wrestle.

Instead, it made both Dems seem larger and better than they had seemed before. Both looked presidential, ready to take on the Republicans and govern the country if they win. Last night’s debate did not just invite—it compelled—serious Dems to unite behind the eventual nominee.

The chief difference between Bernie and Hillary has been apparent for some time. But last night’s debate brought it out and highlighted it.

The most important difference, by far, is reach. It suffuses all the important specific issues, from economic policy and health care, through climate change, to foreign policy.

On all these, Hillary did her best to wrap herself in the mantle of “realism” and the flag of President Obama. She pledged to follow his lead in preserving and extending Social Security and health care. She lauded his achievement of a global agreement to fight climate change. She pledged to preserve and extend NATO, while trying to get our allies to pay a fairer share of its expenses.

On more controversial issues of foreign policy, such as Libya and our relationship with Israel, Hillary straddled, twice putting credit or blame on the President, while keeping her own approach flexible and indistinct. Hillary, it seemed, is eager to head the President’s third term.

Bernie, on the other hand, continued to express the dissatisfaction that many progressives and others feel. Why, he asked, do we Yanks lack the universal health care, free or nearly free college, and paid family and parental leave that virtually all our advanced allies have? Why do we have economics and politics on which billionaires call all the shots? On climate change, why don’t we Yanks, who have the world’s most advanced technology and lots of money, lead the conversion to clean energy with a carbon tax? Unlike Hillary, Bernie played the part of a candidate unhappy with the status quo.

By wrapping herself in the President’s garb, Hillary sought several advantages. First, she continued her so-far-successful appeal to African-Americans, who understandably want the President to get the credit and the respect that—in a time of seemingly ubiquitous racism—his brilliant leadership deserves. Second, Hillary made a play for party loyalty and continuity. Third, she touted successful incrementalism as more “practical” than reaching for the stars. Finally, by reiterating her experience and her style, which matches the president’s cautious realism, she sought to don the mantle of his successes as well.

The problem, of course, is that the President has not achieved nearly as much as he and his supporters hoped for seven years ago. Along the way, he met a Berlin Wall of blind and racist opposition, which rose far higher than what normal politics and our Constitution allow. Razor wire blocking any Supreme Court nominee now tops that wall.

Under these unprecedented circumstances, Barack Obama achieved as much or more than any pol could. With political jujitsu, he turned opponents’ extremist momentum against them.

It was all glorious to watch. In spite of the Berlin Wall—or maybe because of it—the President achieved a number of small miracles and a few big ones, including “Obamacare.” But the fact still remains: we progressives did not get nearly as much hope or change as we voted for in 2008.

Sometimes big walls seem absolutely impenetrable until they fall. That’s precisely what happened to the real Berlin Wall in 1989. Two years later, the Soviet Union that had built it was history.

Could the same thing happen to the Berlin Wall built by Limbaugh, Rove and McConnell? At the moment, that seems not only possible, but likely.

For about a decade, the GOP has doubled down on a lame strategy. It threw its lot in with the Old South. It built its wall out of lies, blame and racism. The more it was challenged, the more it doubled down.

Our South can go to extremes. It once supported slavery; it even tried to justify slavery as a Christian virtue. But the rest of the country has no history of extremism. And whether you measure by population or by GDP, the South is only about a third of us. So betting on the South rising again and ruling the rest of us was not a particularly brilliant move, although it may have been the best the Party of Bosses could conceive at the time.

Today the tide of American politics is changing. The left is rising again. It’s rising precisely because the GOP outliers have made the rookiest error in politics. They tried to come from behind not by moving toward the center, but by moving toward the extreme.

The President did his part, too. He did it superbly. He maneuvered the GOP and its moronic leaders, especially McConnell, into doing the dumbest things and bragging about them—things like shutting the government down, risking a national default, and taking all the big money they could find, and from the most publicly obnoxious men willing to give it. In the public mind, Donald Trump is just the epitome of GOP donor-kings.

So the Dems who haven’t voted or caucused yet now have a real choice. Should they vote for a would-be successor to Obama, a candidate who believes in incrementalism but lacks President Obama’s extraordinary political skill? Or should they “build” on Obama’s successes, including his painting the GOP into a corner, by setting a whole new direction for us Yanks?

No one who’s been around for a while believes that Bernie can reach all his goals, let alone in a single term. If he becomes president, he’ll be 78 when his first term ends.

But that’s not the question. The question in this election is whether Obama has so effectively and brilliantly outfoxed the GOP as to prepare the groundwork for the real sea change in American politics that his supporters hoped for in 2008. If you believe that Obama has just held back the GOP tide temporarily, and that more middle-seeking is the best response against GOP extremism, then Hillary is your natural choice. If you believe that Obama and even larger forces of history have reversed the tide, and that the GOP just hasn’t gotten the memo yet, then Bernie is your man.

“A man’s reach,” the old proverb goes, “should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Barack Obama has spent seven hard years cutting the branches of bigotry and obstruction so that we can all reach higher. Experience does matter, but Bernie has over 25 years in Congress. Maybe bold goals matter most now.

The rest of the differences between Hillary and Bernie don’t amount to a hill of beans. Both are plenty progressive. Both know a lot. Both would be infinitely better than any possible GOP alternative, let alone one of the two (Trump or Cruz) who now seem most likely.

Both also share New York values—Bernie because he was born in Brooklyn, and Hillary because she served the state as senator for two terms. That means both can speak in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, even when not reading from a script. It means that neither mistakes insults for reasoning. It means that both try not to offend anyone, let along a major voting group like Hispanics, immigrants, or women. It means that both know how to make a point subtly or ambiguously—a skill vital in both politics and diplomacy.

Whoever wins the nomination, the party will unite behind her or him, for five good reasons. First, the alternative, a possible GOP win, will be unthinkable, just for the nation, let alone Dems. Second, both are presidential and would be strong leaders. Third, a huge prize dangles before progressive voters this time: possible control of all three branches of government. Fourth, there will be no Ralph Nader to split the progressive vote.

Finally, the tides that President Obama worked so hard to shift in Dems’ favor will not stay out forever. Progressives must strike—and strike hard—while the GOP remains split and confused.

So rejoice, progressives! Play the tape of last night’s debates over and over. And let it sink in. Bernie and Hillary—not clueless adolescents braying and insulting each other—are what presidents look like. Barring things that no one can foresee, Bernie or Hillary will be our president next January. Then our national renewal can begin in earnest.

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