Keeping Them Honest

Vladimir Putin didn’t invade another country. ISIS didn’t capture Rome and behead the pope. There was no campus shooting with dozens dead. No white cop shot and killed another unarmed black kid – well, nothing was captured on video, so that didn’t happen. Donald Trump said nothing outrageous – he was recycling what he had already said. The Israelis were shooting young Palestinians again, some of whom had started knifing Israeli civilians in outrage that has been simmering since 1948 – so there was nothing new there. It was a slow news day. There was room for talk about the night before, the first Democratic debate of this election cycle, but what was there to say? Hillary won. That’s what the New York Times’ Charles Blow was saying:

Hillary Clinton crushed it! There is no other way for me put it.

Her performance Tuesday night at the first Democratic debate was so spectacular as to erase all doubt: Weakened as she may be, there is still fire in that belly, and she will not quietly shift to the side to make room for someone else – not Bernie Sanders, and not Joe Biden should he ever stop this annoying dillydallying and decide to run.

And I don’t consider her performance spectacular simply because of what she did – although she demonstrated a remarkable assuredness and dexterity – but also because of what the others didn’t do.

It seemed as if Clinton was the only candidate on that stage that came to play … and to win.

And he goes on to make his case, but Slate’s Michelle Goldberg isn’t so sure about that:

Although Clinton won the overall debate, Sanders set its terms. From the beginning, Clinton sought to appeal to his supporters rather than vice versa. Consider her answer to Cooper’s question about her ideology. “Just for the record, are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?” he asked. She responded, “I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

What proceeded was discussion about who could best implement a progressive agenda, in which the agenda itself was taken for granted. As Clinton said at one point, “We agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.” That was a pretty amazing thing to hear, given that Sanders’ goal is universal social insurance.

Goldberg cites more and more of these “me too” moments – she wants what Bernie wants, but she says that she can actually get things done. Perhaps he had her on the run:

Left-wing economic populism was ascendant before he announced his campaign, visible in everything from Occupy Wall Street to the draft Elizabeth Warren campaign to the growth of union organizing among young new media workers. But he has mobilized progressive sentiment in a very practical, constructive way. He’s the anti–Ralph Nader, changing the Democratic Party from within rather than threatening to spoil the election from without. This is what right-wing activists have long done within the Republican Party, to lasting effect.

And there was this:

Sanders’ most newsworthy moment, of course, came when he declined Cooper’s invitation to attack Clinton for using a private email server. “Let me say something that may not be great politics,” he said. “But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

Sanders was wrong: It was great politics. His statement made him look like a mensch and a man of principle, ensuring that the debate remained a surprisingly substantive exchange on the issues he cares about most, rather a GOP-style pro-wrestling match. He actually seemed less interested in taking down the front-runner than in elevating his own ideas. That’s hugely rare in a politician.

Maybe he did win the debate. Michal Addady looks at the data:

CNN, which hosted the debate, wrote that Clinton “proved without a doubt” why she’s currently the Democratic frontrunner; Forbes bestowed letter grades on the candidates, placing the former Secretary of State at the top of her class with an “A-“; The National Journal claims that the she won simply because she is a strong debater and Bernie Sanders is not. However, multiple polls seem to show that most Americans don’t agree with these media pundits, asserting that Bernie Sanders was the clear winner.

One Google Consumer Surveys poll conducted for IJ Review, a website co-founded by a past advisor to former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, shows Sanders in the lead with 43.7% of the vote, 15 points ahead of Clinton. … Time had him winning with 57%, NJ.com with 71.71%, and Fox2Now with 80.72%, almost six times Clinton’s 14.09%.

Fortune also posed the question, sans poll, asking readers to share their thoughts about the debate. The comments overwhelmingly lean in favor of a Sanders victory.

None of this may matter. The election is thirteen months away. Much will happen, and James Fallows offers this:

Hillary’s running for President.

Sanders is running to make an argument, to pull the Democrats away from becoming the Grand Old (but Sane!) Party. I think he’s also very eager to make the point that the Democrats should use their tech and communications advantage pervasively, not simply for fundraising and Get Out the Vote, and that’s a message he can deliver by running for president without winning anything.

Biden is “running” as Hillary’s VP pro tem through November 2016; if something happened to Hillary or if she had decided that she just couldn’t face two years of this, Biden would be there.

O’Malley is running for a cabinet position, or a job.

Webb is running to be one of the founders of a new center-right party that could grow out of the ashes of the Republican Party. He’s running to be John C. Fremont. See also Jon Huntsman.

And no one knows why Lincoln Chafee is running, not even Chafee, it seems. And Salon’s Heather Parton doesn’t really care who won, because something else was going on:

With the exception of some eccentric moments from former senators Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, the Democrats held a lively debate about ideas and exchanged views on how to deal with problems facing the country. They talked about guns and college debt and Syria and Social Security and much more. Not one of them looked like deer in the headlights, clueless about the subject at hand (something that happened frequently in the GOP debates), nor did they weirdly launch into their stump speeches at the slightest provocation.

Truth be told, they all seemed somewhat … normal. (Or at least as normal as any politician can be.) And that is the last thing the Republicans wanted anyone to see. After all, some people who aren’t deluded by Fox News and talk radio might then remember that this is serious business, and the GOP can’t have that.

One never knows how these things will go, but at the very least one hopes that a majority of the Americans are still looking for someone sane and sober to run the country. It may not be as entertaining as Donald Trump raving about his wall or Carly Fiorina delivering a torrent of gruesome accusations against Planned Parenthood, but it’s important. There was little suspense – after all nobody was waiting with bated breath to see what crazy thing one of these candidates would say next. What they got instead was a stage full of experienced public servants with deep knowledge of government policy.

That’s what was new in our current circumstances:

If there’s one thing that was made obvious last night, it’s that the GOP is one big heaping mess of a political party right now. The contrast between it and the Democrats couldn’t be sharper and not just in the presidential race. After all, the backdrop of last night’s event was a drama happening in the Capitol in which House Republicans can’t agree on who should be Speaker. How do they expect, then, to bring the entire country together under one president? It’s laughable. They’re laughable. The candidates on the stage last night in Las Vegas, on the other hand, were serious.

That meant that this debate finally clarified matters:

Now that we have seen the presidential candidates in both parties on the debate stage, it’s clear that the two parties don’t just have different political philosophies. They represent two different countries.

Republican America is a dystopian hellscape in which evil, violent foreigners are trying to kill us in our beds while rapacious jackbooted government thugs try to wrestle our guns from our cold, dead fingers and Planned Parenthood sociopaths are committing mayhem on children and selling the body parts. And that’s just for starters.

Democratic America is a very powerful nation struggling with a declining middle class and economic insecurity at the hands of the ultra-rich, requiring some energetic government intervention to mitigate income inequality, solve the looming crisis of climate change and manage global crises without plunging the nation into more wars. They also must hold off that anarchistic opposition which sees the world as a dystopian hellscape and that may be the greatest challenge of all.

Did Hillary win the debate, or did Bernie? That’s a bit beside the point:

A little over a year from now voters are going to decide which country they want to live in. Let’s hope they choose wisely. The rest of us are going to have to live in it too.

It won’t be easy either way, and Keven Drum offers four questions for Democrats that have no good answers:

What are you going to do about Syria? There is no plausible way of making substantial gains in Syria without committing to a full-scale invasion. And even that might not work. Like it or not, the real answer is that none of the candidates are going to do much about Syria.

How are you going to get a Republican Congress to cooperate with you? This isn’t going to happen in any big way. It just isn’t. There are some small-ball deals to be made, and even those are going to require a lot of grinding. Unfortunately this doesn’t make a very inspiring campaign message.

How do we get Vladimir Putin to back off? The same way you get Donald Trump to stop talking: you don’t. We’re already doing nearly everything we can to pressure Putin short of going to war, and we’re winning. Putin is desperate for some kind of victory, and nothing is going to stop him from occasional military adventures that are showy and impressive on the surface but fall apart if you dig half an inch down.

Why do you want to be president? The real answer is: to preserve Obamacare and prevent a Republican from appointing the next Supreme Court justice. Any other answer is just so much blah-blah-blah.

That’s dismal. Nothing can be fixed. Only a few things can be preserved, perhaps, and Paul Waldman addresses that second item:

When Barack Obama was elected, congressional Republicans made what was in some ways a strategically shrewd decision that they were going to oppose him on basically everything. Because he started with huge majorities in both houses of Congress, he had an extraordinary record of legislative achievement in his first two years, that opposition notwithstanding. But in 2010 Republicans won the House, and four years after that they took the Senate. For all intents and purposes, legislating was over.

In those two wave elections of 2010 and 2014, a generation of extremely conservative Republicans who viewed all compromise as betrayal were elected, moving the party to the right ideologically and making it far more obstructionist. Now let’s say a Democrat wins in 2016. What happens then?

Nothing good happens:

It’s almost a certainty that Republicans will retain control of the House. Democrats have a chance to win back the Senate (Republicans have to defend many more seats, because everyone who won in 2010 is up for reelection), but even if they do, it certainly won’t be with a filibuster-proof majority. Not only that, if Democrats make gains, it will be in those few competitive states and House districts, which would mean that the remaining Republicans would as a group be even more conservative than they are now. Are they going to be in the mood to work with a Democratic president?

And then there’s Bernie Sanders’ solution to this problem:

Now, in my view, the only way we can take on the right wing Republicans who are, by the way, I hope will not continue to control the Senate and the House when one of us elected President. But the only way we can get things done is by having millions of people coming together. If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities, millions of young people are going to have to demand it, and give the Republicans an offer they can’t refuse.

If we want to raise the minimum wage to $15 bucks an hour, workers are going to have to come together and look the Republicans in the eye, and say, “We know what’s going on. You vote against us, you are out of your job.”

Waldman is not impressed:

In 2007, Mark Schmitt called the argument among Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards the “theory of change primary.” As Clinton would describe it in speeches, Edwards thought you demand change, Obama thought you hope for change, and she thought you work for change. Sanders’ theory, as he lays it out here, is essentially that you force change, by making it too politically dangerous for Republicans to resist.

Good luck with that:

On one hand, Sanders is not bothering to indulge the dream that you can reach across the aisle and bring Democrats and Republicans together. In fact, no candidate from either party is saying that – and after the last seven years, who could do so with a straight face? But that’s a dramatic change from the last couple of decades.

Though they all ended up inspiring partisan passions, our last three presidents all ran as conciliators who could unite Washington and the country. Bill Clinton was going to create a liberal/conservative synthesis, a “Third Way” that could attract support from both parties. George W. Bush touted his record working with Democrats in Texas. “I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect,” he said in his 2000 convention speech. Barack Obama, who became a national figure in a 2004 convention speech where he said, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America,” thought that he could sit down with everyone, earnestly listen to their concerns, and bring them around at least some of the time. All three presidents failed at this goal.

So would President Sanders:

Let’s say he succeeds in creating a mass movement behind parts of his agenda. Is he really going to be able to raise the political risk of opposing something like free public college tuition high enough to overcome House Republicans’ personal inclinations and their constituents’ wishes?

Imagine you’re a Republican representative who hails from a conservative district in Alabama or Idaho or Tennessee; we’ll call him Jim. Jim is right now stopping comprehensive immigration reform, which the GOP as a whole knows it needs to pass in order to have any chance of appealing to the growing Hispanic population. But Jim won’t sign on, because though that might be good for the party, it’s bad for him. His conservative constituents don’t want it, he personally doesn’t want it, and the only political risk he fears is a primary challenge from the right.

Is Jim really going to be scared and/or persuaded when a bunch of young people in America’s cities – even if there are millions of them – create a movement behind President Sanders’ plan for free college tuition? Don’t bet on it.

It should be noted that their obstructionism, and the demands it creates among their own constituents, may keep the GOP from winning the White House as long as it continues. But that’s not really a problem for Jim. Indeed, if they lose again, Jim and others like him will tell themselves that it was only because their nominee wasn’t conservative enough.

And that takes us back to the debate:

I’m talking about Sanders here because he’s the one who got that question last night, but I haven’t heard Clinton address this problem in a real way, either. And maybe there’s no good solution. I’m not sure how I’d tell them to answer it if I were advising them, at least not if they want to maintain the lofty, hopeful tone presidential candidates tend to use, where they present themselves as potent agents of change and renewal who can overcome any obstacle. No candidate is going to tell voters, “Here are the things I’d like to do, although, let’s be honest, I probably won’t be able to.” Even if it’s the truth.

The incentives have changed. The system is broken, and Ed Kilgore adds this:

I’d say the most “realistic” theory of how Republicans might “change” involves the possibility that a third consecutive presidential defeat will finally empower those in the GOP who believe their party has to change instead of doing what it’s been doing more fiercely. But it’s not necessarily going to happen. Another feasible approach, which Clinton has hinted at, is even more aggressive use of executive powers than Obama has undertaken – though that will, of course, inspire even greater GOP obstructionism.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that a lot of this situation is baked into the constitutional cake of a system designed to inhibit rather than facilitate change. That’s why many liberals (including myself on occasion) long for a parliamentary system where popular majorities bring with them the power to govern. But we aren’t going to get one a them any time soon, and 2009 showed that even overwhelming majorities in Congress along with control of the White House doesn’t guarantee the power to enact a coherent agenda. And so we keep asking ourselves and our politicians for fresh theories of how to govern in a system and against an opposition that creates so much artificial power for the option of doing nothing.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Bernie Sanders hasn’t done some good, as the New Yorkers’ Nicholas Lemann notes here:

There is no chance that the Republican nominee, whoever it is, will talk like Bernie Sanders. But it’s almost certain that he will argue that, more than Clinton, he understands the behind-the-eight-ball feeling that pervades the American middle class, and propose to do a better job of fixing it than she would. Such an argument won’t necessarily come across as hollow just because it’s coming from a Republican. Bernie Sanders is getting at something powerful, which matters to a lot more people than socialists. Clinton’s biggest challenge is finding her way to a more powerful, and perhaps less prepared, way of persuading the disempowered middle class that she can be its champion.

Okay, he didn’t win the debate – Hillary did – or so the talking heads on cable news say. And anyway, the two parties represent two completely different countries, so what is said on one side makes no sense at all to anyone on the other side. The debates are a closed-loop echo chamber. What does it matter what was said? And our system of government, with its elaborate scaffolding of checks and balances, makes doing nothing a hundred times easier than doing something, and it finally seized up. And then there’s this guy. Bernie Sanders will at least keep everyone honest as it all falls apart.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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