Thursday, June 27, 2019

Speed dating in Miami: The first Democratic debate

WHEN THE smoke cleared after the first Democratic debate on Wednesday night, once the after-action reports came in from the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center, it was clear the first firefight in a long campaign was pretty much the rhetorical bullet festival everyone expected.

But there were some notable exceptions — survivors that many observers thought were finished. Anything can happen: that unavoidable takeaway from the first candidates’ debate, on Tuesday, should be a signal for the next debate round, on Thursday.

In the raw, unscripted punch-ups of a crowded pre-primary campaign, another kind of conflict is in play: With the first debate in the books, it’s clear that candidates are sharpening their distinctions one from another. So far, this hasn’t warfare as much as it is speed dating among rivals for the electorate’s heart and the media’s attention.

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The first 10 in the tank – New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren — brought their A games, or tried to. Some of them, those who literally had nothing to lose, went above and beyond, admirably carrying the fire to opponents. Others not so much.

But right from the start, you could tell things were teed up for Warren on opening night. As the undeniable star of the first tranche of candidates vis-à-vis polling and fundraising, the senator from Massachusetts was in the center square. She rose to the occasion, coming out swinging with a sharp distillation of her ethos and her principles, and even some of her policy prescriptions.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, NBC: You have many plans — free college, free child care, government health care, cancellation of student debt, new taxes, new regulations, the breakup of major corporations. But this comes 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?

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WARREN: So I think of it this way. Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled.

It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African-Americans and Latinos whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined.

It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us.

When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.

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Klobuchar was next, with ideas about education and student debt. “We know that not everyone is sharing in this prosperity. And Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what’s going on, when you have so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums.

“So I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids, I do,” she said. “But I think my plan is a good one. And my plan would be to, first of all, make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education. ...

“Secondly, I’d used Pell grants. I’d double them from $6,000 to $12,000 a year and expand it to the number of families that get covered, to families that make up to $100,000. And then the third thing I would do is make it easier for students to pay off their student loans. Because I can tell you this: If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans.”

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IT WAS NOT a good night for O’Rourke, regardless of what his handlers and adjutants say. The former Texas phenom from Texas seemed off his game from almost the beginning, speaking in platitudes. His delivery seems wooden, predictable, and off-script. Consider this exchange with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie:

GUTHRIE: ... [S]ome Democrats want a marginal individual tax rate of 70 percent on the very highest earners, those making more than $10 million a year. Would you support that? And if not, what would your top individual rate be?

O’ROURKE: This economy has got to work for everyone. And right now, we know that it isn’t. And it’s going to take all of us coming together to make sure that it does —

O’Rourke then begins speaking in Spanish — presumably the words he’d just spoken in English — and then back to English:

O’ROURKE: Right now, we have a system that favors those who can pay for access and outcomes. That’s how you explain an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest. A $2 trillion tax cut that favored corporations while they were sitting on record piles of cash and the very wealthiest in this country at a time of historic wealth inequality.

A new democracy that is revived because we’ve returned power to the people, no PACs, no gerrymandering, automatic and same-day voter registration to bring in more voters, and a new Voting Rights Act to get rid of the barriers that are in place now…

GUTHRIE: Congressman O’Rourke…

O’ROURKE: That’s how we each have a voice in our democracy and make this economy work for everybody.

GUTHRIE: Congressman, that’s time, sir. I’ll give you 10 seconds to answer if you want to answer the direct question. Would you support a 70 percent individual marginal tax rate? Yes, no, or pass?

O’ROURKE: I would support a tax rate and a tax code that is fair to everyone. Tax capital at the same right…

GUTHRIE: Seventy percent?

O’ROURKE: … that you — you tax ordinary income. Take that corporate tax rate up to 28 percent. You would generate the revenues…

At which point his oration basically fell apart. With the candidate continuing to poll in the vicinity of the lowest whole number, the same may be said of his campaign.

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Not so for Booker. The Jersey senator who’s been steadily finding his voice for the last several years took things to a new level on Wednesday. Booker spoke up about the role of big tech in today’s economy, a pet peeve of Warren’s for a while now.

GUTHRIE: Senator Warren in particular put out a plan to break up tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google. You’ve said we should not, quote, “be running around pointing at companies and breaking them up without any kind of process.” Why do you disagree?

BOOKER: I don’t think I disagree. I think we have a serious problem in our country with corporate consolidation. And you see the evidence of that in how dignity is being stripped from labor, and we have people that work full-time jobs and still can’t make a living wage.

We see that because consumer prices are being raised by pharmaceutical companies that often have monopolistic holds on drugs. And you see that by just the fact that this is actually an economy that’s hurting small businesses and not allowing them to compete.

One of the most aggressive bills in the Senate to deal with corporate consolidation is mine about corporate consolidation in the ag sector. So I feel very strongly about the need to check the corporate consolidation and let the free market work.

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BOOKER THEN talked about his hometown, Newark, N.J., which he basically earmarked as an American microcosm, a working textbook example of a place the promise of big tech hasn’t trickled down yet. “I live in a low-income black and brown community,” he said. “I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans. The indicators that are being used, from GDP to Wall Street’s rankings, is not helping people in my community. It is about time that we have an economy that works for everybody, not just the wealthiest in our nation.”

As you might expect, immigration was perhaps the tripwire emotional issue of the evening, a fact that Castro was prepared to exploit brilliantly. The former mayor of San Antonio leveraged his own personal experience, as a Texan and a proud Latino, to move the immigration issue into something personal, and not readily subject to the bullet points and platitudes of House Trump.

“Let’s be very clear,” Castro told NBC’s Jose Diaz-Balart. “The reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of [the federal Immigration and Nationality Act] which criminalizes coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not. And I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that.”

The back and forth of the exchange that followed, between Castro and O’Rourke, is too long to go into here, and the text couldn’t communicate the drama and the power that Castro demonstrated as he brandished this issue close to his heart. It’s likely to lift Castro, however slightly, in the next round of opinion polls.

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Inslee pushed back on the standing perception of himself as a climate-change one-trick pony, stepping forward with other ideas and bolstering his bona fides as a governor of an emerging state with impeccable progressive credentials and economic clout.

“I’m proud that we’ve passed a law that prevents local law enforcement from being turned into mini-ICE agents,” he said. “I’m proud to have been the first governor to stand up against Donald Trump’s heinous Muslim ban. I’m proud to be a person who’s not only talked about Dreamers, but being one of the first to make sure that they get a college education, so that they can realize their dreams. These are some of the most inspirational people in our state.

“And I’ll leave you with this thought, if you want to know what I think. Donald Trump the other day tried to threaten me — he thought it was a threat — to tell me that he would send refugees into Washington state if we passed a law that I passed. And I told him that’s not a threat at all. We welcome refugees into our state. We recognize diversity as a strength. This is how we’ve built America. That tradition is going to continue if I’m president of the United States.”

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THE MEDIA was uniform in noting how President* Donald Trump was relatively absent from the language and rhetoric of Debate Night I. There were only a dozen or so mentions of the Oval Office occupant, and it made a certain procedural sense.

It’s a fact of American political life: first you get through the field of your own candidates, via the primaries, before you take on the incumbent. To go by the sometimes aggressive lines of inquiry between the candidates on Wednesday, we can expect the gloves will come off en masse.

The bottom dwellers, the ones polling in single digits or less (like John Delaney, subject of a brutally frank tweet from Michael Moore), will come to the conclusion that they’ve got nothing to lose. Ironically, the candidates in the top tier will come to the same conclusion, albeit for different reasons.

What they’ve all got in common: The certainty, or at least the possibility, of getting at least one more shot in the spotlight ... one more speed date from the podium.

Image credits: Candidates in the hall: Joe Raedle/Getty Images. Warren: Joe Raedle/Getty Images. Klobuchar: Joe Raedle/Getty Images. O'Rourke: Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press. Booker: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty. Castro: NBC News. Inslee: tk. Delaney: @MMFlint.


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