This is the transcript from Episode 158 of The Editors.
Michael: Biden against the field, Harris against herself, moderate Dems against progressives, Marianne Williamson against the dark psychic forces. We will discuss all this and more on this week’s edition of The Editors.
Hello, bonjour, hola, dia dhuit ar maidin. This week, I, Michael Brendan Dougherty, am your host. While I’m in this chair, I am reordering this podcast to the highest good with the pride of Tennessee, David French, and the smartest political consultant we know, Luke Thompson. Our normal host, Rich Lowry, is on assignment in East Asia. The right honorable Charles C. W. Cooke is on assignment in Europe.
So we had the debates this week. Joe Biden, in polls that came out before the debates, seemed to have recovered almost all of his diminished lead over the field, a lead that had been falling after his first debate and entanglement with Kamala Harris. We’re recording this early Thursday morning. Last night, he took fire from all across the stage, from Bill de Blasio, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker.
David French, how did Biden do in the second debate?
David: Better than the first debate. I think he scored some punches. He had a moment toward the end where he generated this genuine audience reaction when he was taking on Kirsten Gillibrand. It was the equivalent, not to get too Twitter insidery of the “But you were at my wedding, Denise” kind of moment. It was “But you were at Syracuse with me, Kirsten.” That really summed up, I think, the sense of befuddlement.
If I’m Joe Biden, you know you’re going to get incoming from all sides. You know that you’re going to get . . . The oppo file on you is going to be huge because you’ve been in public life for a very long time. But if I’m Joe Biden, one of the things that I’m genuinely befuddled by is the amount of incoming he took over his role in what at the time were seen as some of the seminal public-policy successes of previous popular Democratic administrations. Let’s not forget Bill Clinton left office, as controversial as he was, with a high approval rating. Barack Obama left office popular enough that he likely would’ve knocked Trump into the outer orbits if he had run against him for a fictional third term and then handed the baton over to Hillary Clinton.
The 1994 crime bill, Obamacare, and Barack Obama on immigration would have been considered for a long time by Democrats to be part of the legacy of success of the administrations. I know the crime bill has come under more fire for longer, but this is a bill that a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported in 1994. There was a long and dramatic decline in crime rates under the Clinton administration. Of course, it’s wrong to give the Clinton administration credit for all of that, but can you not give the Clinton administration credit for some of that?
It really was amazing because it seems like the moment . . . It’s not just that, well, the Democrats have evolved on policy. It’s not just that. I mean, parties evolve on policy all the time. You learn new things. You go on to different things. But it was this scorn, this moral indignation at Joe Biden’s role, and prominent role he’s played in the Democratic past, advancing policies that Democrats have long advanced, and then this scorn that his health-care policy, which would represent a significant expansion of the largest social-welfare program passed since the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson in 1965 — and I’m talking about Obamacare, the Democrats’ biggest social welfare success of the last couple of generations — that Biden’s preservation and large-scale expansion of that, now that’s just not nearly enough.
If I’m Joe Biden, you had to be prepared for that, and I thought he was reasonably aggressive, not necessarily completely on top of his game, but reasonably, by Joe Biden standards, on top of his game in fending this off. But at some point, you’ve got to just stand back and look and say, “What on earth? Is there nothing good that came before? Is the arrogance of the present so great?” That seemed to be where his critics were.
Michael: Yeah, I thought it was interesting that since Black Lives Matter, that movement started, and the media caught onto these stories of police not following procedure at all that they should follow when they encounter African Americans in routine incidents that then lead to unspeakable tragedies, that’s been ascendant. But it is weird and almost like the Democrats are taking their lead from the current media environment and forgetting that 14 major African-American mayors signed a letter supporting the crime bill because they wanted it to help them put more police on the streets. There was another side to African-American attitudes towards policing. In the early ’90s, there was the Public Enemy song “911 is a Joke,” the idea that police and emergency services were too absent from black communities, not just brutal and dictatorial.
David: Crime was an emergency. Crime was through the roof by modern standards. There was funding for 100,000 new cops, more than 100,000 new jail beds. People look at that and say, “Ah, mass incarceration.” Well, it actually turns out that mass incarceration is a state-level problem. The increases in federal incarceration were, I’m not going to say a rounding error, but are not material to the mass-incarceration problem.
There was a “get tough on crime” wave that flooded the United States of America, but in part because there was a crime wave. More than 2,000 murders in one year in New York City, more than 2,000. I’m old enough to remember that. I wasn’t living in the city at the time. I got to the city shortly after Rudy Giuliani started helping turn things around. But younger people, and that’s disproportionately who comprises the core of Twitter, just have no memory of this, and they look back in scorn at the actions of the past taken to address it.
Michael: Now, Luke, Biden took incoming fire from Cory Booker, who actually tried to take away the Obama card from Biden, right? There was an exchange where Biden was defending the policy successes of the Obama administration, and both Bill de Blasio and Cory Booker tried to hit back at him. How do you think Biden did in those exchanges, and do you think he still gets to play this card? Is it still an effective one in these primaries?
Luke: Well, I think Biden has to decide which card he’s playing. Sometimes he says the Obama-Biden administration, which is overstating his role. Other times he wants to be the coy counselor and say things like, “I’m not going to share my private advice to the president on that issue.” Then other times he wants to talk about his foreign-policy chops from his years in the Senate.
My view on the Biden–Obama relationship is this. Biden needs to pick the subject he’s going to deploy it on, and deploy it on that subject over and over and over again. It should be the subject where he has the greatest vulnerability with primary voters, and that subject is health care. If Biden restricted himself to talking about Obama only to saying “It’s great to promise people things, but I’ve been in the room where we’ve delivered a large project that has made a real difference in lots of people’s lives, saved tens of thousands of lives,” go through the talking point about Obamacare, and said, “And I’m ready to fight for it because, damn it, if it was good enough for Barack Obama, it’s good enough for me, and I defy anyone on this stage to say otherwise,” then I think he can use it effectively.
Right now, he’s using it reflexively as a security blanket. He uses it one way when Kamala Harris attacks him, however artlessly she did that last night. He uses it a different way when Gillibrand attacks him, and then he walked into a problem with Booker where Booker is showing some chops that he didn’t show in the first debate round, said quite deftly, “Look, Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You’re either glued at the hip to Barack Obama, in which case you own everything that happened in that administration. You need to explain your role in it. Or you get credit for none of it because you were just the Hopalong Cassidy sidekick.”
Michael: Yeah, I thought, however, that that was an effective moment. We’ll talk about Booker in a moment. I thought overall, though, Biden performed well enough. I don’t think anyone seriously damaged him. If he performs this well in debates going forward, I think his chances are higher than I’ve estimated them to be in the past. I do want to see what happens as the hustings actually heat up. That was a big moment in Barack Obama’s own campaign in winning over the African-American vote that had been clinging lightly onto Hillary Clinton in 2008 until he started doing these appearances at Gamecocks stadium in South Carolina and really moving people with his political talent.
Luke: Yeah, I think you make a good point there, which is there’s . . . The conventional wisdom is that the black vote was locked in for Hillary until the day after Obama won the Iowa caucus, and then they all swung over to Obama. That’s not exactly what happened. It certainly was the case that—
Michael: No, it was loosening up.
Luke: — he consolidated, but, yes, people were moving his way in South Carolina beforehand.
Michael: Yeah. I was lucky enough to be able to witness that myself.
Exit question on Joe Biden: Will African-American Democrats split or run from Biden before South Carolina? David French?
David: I think if he goes into Iowa and New Hampshire as viable as he seems now, no. I think if he goes in strong, if he weathers the winnowing down of the debates to a smaller core that’s going to be better at going after him, then I think the position he goes into Iowa and New Hampshire will be the position he goes into in South Carolina, if not stronger, if he’s strong in the early states.
Michael: Luke Thompson?
Luke: Just in South Carolina or across the board?
Michael: South Carolina is the —
Luke: The first —
Michael: — first big test case, I think.
Luke: Yeah. I think Biden will have more residual strength in southern states like South Carolina within the black vote, compared to northern states, where he’s already struggling with the relatively more urbanized and younger black voting bloc in northern cities or in northern states. I think he’s limping along and subject to being knocked out.
Luke: Yeah. I think where he sits —
Michael: Yeah, you and I have both been Biden skeptics.
Luke: Exactly. Where he sits in Iowa is going to determine where he sits in South Carolina.
Michael: Okay. I think they will move away from him before South Carolina.
Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were both on the stage last night. The conventional wisdom out of the first time, the first debate, was that Kamala Harris had a big moment with Joe Biden. There was a feeling that the media class was rallying to Kamala Harris, that she has the staff, the kind of donor base that is the inherited broken Clinton machine that still exists in the Democratic party. And the conventional wisdom after the first debate was that Cory Booker was way out of his depth. I think last night started to reverse it. David French, what did you think of the performance of these two candidates?
David: Yeah, on Kamala Harris, when she is not preparing, when she’s not unveiling a long-prepared attack with T-shirts ready to unveil in the middle of the debate, she’s not quite as good. Tulsi Gabbard absolutely lowered the boom on her.
Michael: It was shades of —
Luke: How excited were you by that?
Michael: Listen, for me personally, that was awesome. It was shades of Christie and Rubio, where the exchange just leaves the other person stammering and damaged. I thought it was a heck of a moment. Anyway, go on, David.
David: Yeah. Again, this is one of those issues that goes back to what I was just talking about with Joe Biden. Something that used to be a talking point for a Democratic politician is suddenly a source of shame in that she was this very tough prosecutor back in the day, and she was a very tough prosecutor, tough enough that, by the standards of right now, people blanch at the things that she did. But when you actually do look at the record and you note the thousands of marijuana prosecutions when Harris jokes about smoking marijuana, when you talk about the resistance to DNA testing for a death-row inmate, when you look at some of that stuff, it’s troubling.
What Harris did in the moment was just pause, and you could tell she was rattled, and just say, “That’s false.” Well, there were instant fact-checks available, of course. Everyone started immediately circulating all of the pieces that have been written over the last six months about Harris’s record as a prosecutor. So in the moment when she says, “That’s false,” it has a holding-action effect of casting doubt on what you just watched. But over time I think that is, in particular, going to hit her, because then what ends up happening is her denial of the attack lends another 24 to 48 to 72 hours of life to the attack because it gets repeated and reaffirmed across the length and breadth of the Internet. I thought that was very effective. She did not handle it well at all.
Look, Democrats who have a record that isn’t completely in line with the woke present are going to have to have better answers to the questions than simply dodging and evading and denying. They’re going to have to have a little bit more self-confidence in their role in public life before this moment, because I think an awful lot of Democratic primary voters are not exactly where woke Twitter is and are not exactly at the point of rejecting all that came before, so they’ve got to have a better answer.
I thought Cory Booker was fine, was good. I mean, I’ll just be honest. It’s really hard for me, after things like the Spartacus moment and some of the other histrionics in the Senate, to look at him without that filter. It’s hard for me to take him as seriously as I otherwise would, and that’s probably a mistake on my part, because, frankly, all that Spartacus stuff and everything is super, super insidery, that really nobody knows or cares about at all.
But when I could kind of lift that filter, I saw a guy who . . . the reason why a lot of people pegged him as a talented, formidable young politician back in the day, that he has some raw skill here. He has a real ability, when he’s on his game, to connect with sincerity, and I thought at his best moments that’s what he did.
Michael: I came away thinking that Booker’s star was rising and Harris’s was falling. Even though these are both candidates, as you were alluding to, that part of their star status in the Democratic primary was that they were hard moderate on one facet of the political spectrum, that Kamala Harris was a law-and-order figure in California politics, especially in the Democratic party, and Cory Booker was a neoliberal urbanist in the Democratic party. Both of these were seen as savvy moves. It’s sort of like being the outwardly Christian person in the Democratic party. It’s like shaping a gemstone in order to catch the light, and that has done it for this. But both of them were in a position where they were attacking the front-runner from the left in this primary season.
Luke Thompson, what did you think of both of them about . . . I’m very curious on your thoughts on Booker, who you said showed you something a little bit more last night.
Luke: Yeah. I think Cory is a better debater than he is a speaker. When he speaks, he tends toward histrionics. He gets excited and gets out in front of himself, and he winds up sounding sort of ridiculous. If you go back to the Kavanaugh hearings, you see him, which I believe is when we had our Spartacus moment, he looks just over the top, whereas in that setting, both Klobuchar, who completely disappeared in the first night, and Harris were much more systematic, much more poised, much more effective at delivering their messaging points. By contrast, in a debate, Booker, I think, plays to his strength, which is he’s happiest when he gets to be the happy warrior.
Gillibrand’s interrogation of Biden was a single note played over and over and over and again. But why did you say it? But why did you say it? But why did you say it? Quiet. Enough. We get your point, right? Booker was able to deftly engage with Biden without seeming either angry or flustered. I thought that showed a strength as a candidate that he hasn’t shown before.
Given that he has good organization in Iowa, if he can continue to improve and build on this, he can be a contender in that state. The flip side is that I don’t know that he did enough to make people want to know more about him yet. I would guess, if you had a look at the Google search data, and this is by no means a perfect indicator, I doubt that he really popped that much last night.
Michael: Yeah, I think that’s right. What did you think about Kamala Harris? It seemed to me like, much more than the first debate, she was really on the defensive, not just in the Gabbard exchange, but in exchanges with Joe Biden as well. She seemed not to have the charisma that in previous episodes of The Editors Charlie Cooke has attributed to her, of having this commanding, almost semi-royal presence on a Senate committee or from a prosecutor’s position. What was going on there?
Luke: Harris has presence and can seem very self-possessed, but what I think we’re starting to see is that that self-possession falls apart if you get her off of her footing, and she got knocked off her footing for the first time. I think two things happened. First of all, she tried to go back to the well of attacking Joe Biden, which worked for her the first time, but of course Biden was ready, and it also seemed unimaginative. It also didn’t expand her appeal as a candidate. Okay, Senator Harris, we’ve seen this show before. Show us something new.
I think the second thing is, for whatever reason, she was not ready to be attacked herself, and that was dumb because Harris, being, arguably, on that stage last night the most vulnerable of the left-challenging frontrunners, was the person that if you’re a “0 percent to 1 percent”–polling candidate, you attack for the purposes of elevating yourself at her expense, the exact thing she did to Biden in the first debate. When Gabbard came at her, she was completely unprepared to respond. She was flustered. She never regained it. Then when she went to the spin room afterward, she still hadn’t regained it. All she did was accuse Tulsi Gabbard of cuddling up to Assad, which she does, but I think that’s baked in. She didn’t defend her record effectively, and she didn’t push back on what she claimed were factual inaccuracies.
Michael: Right. It was a really bad exchange for Kamala precisely because she was unwilling to defend herself, who she is, what she is supposedly bringing to this race.
Okay, exit question. David French, who will survive longest in the Democratic primary, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris?
David: Kamala Harris. I just don’t think that Booker . . . I think he did fine, but I just don’t think that this debate elevated him all that much, and Harris just has enormous built-in advantages.
Michael: Luke Thompson?
Luke: Boy, this is a tough one. Gun to my head, I would probably say Harris because she has more money, but I think Cory is learning and improving as a candidate and will probably improve his polling position, whereas Harris does not appear to be improving and appears to be diminishing as a candidate.
Michael: The correct answer is Cory Booker, I think for the reasons Luke Thompson just said there. I think there’s going to be curiosity about him. I think he’s going to be willing when it comes time to defend his own record in Newark in a way that Kamala Harris doesn’t seem willing to do in California. I also just think that there’s something about Kamala Harris inheriting the Clinton team that’s going to bring dark psychic forces to bear within the campaign organization itself.
All right. We should talk about the first night of the debate, which had its own interesting moments. I think the breakout star once again by Google searches is Marianne Williamson. As my wife asked me — I was watching the debate on my iPad last night while we were trying to get our children to finally sleep, or two nights ago — she said, “Oh, is the happy hippy woman doing well?” And sure enough, she was.
There was a moment where Williamson said that . . . She offered a critique of the field, and it was similar to one she’d offered in the first debate, where she said, “If you think you’re going to beat Donald Trump with all these plans or all this wonk stuff, you’re wrong. He has unleashed dark psychic forces in the country.” That was the quote, “the dark psychic force in this country,” and you have to counter that. The immediate reaction from the mediasphere on Twitter was “Ha ha, silly New Age guru.” Then within about 15 minutes, 20 minutes, it settled in, and people I think started to realize that Marianne Williamson might be onto something, not just as an electoral matter but even as a descriptive one.
David French, you’ve even written a little bit about this. Are you about to be expelled from Geneva by John Calvin? Are you going the way of Michael Servetus? What was the Marianne Williamson moment for you?
David: You hit the nail on the head when you talked about the two-step response to the dark psychic forces of collective hatred. Everyone immediately laughed. “Look, the New Age candidate said ‘dark psychic forces.’” I think I shared a Sauron GIF on Twitter. Then you think for a second, and you go, “Wait a minute, yeah, this is the hatred and the negative polarization and the sense of rage that is dominating our public discourse.”
I mean, how many times have we said, just talking about the events of the last couple of months we’ve been going through this —and we have this level of intensity and we have this level of anger, and it’s only July 2019 (well, now August 2019) — “What’s it going to be like in July 2020? What’s it going to be like in August 2020?”
With all due apologies to Marianne, I had to wonkify her statements against wonks a little bit and look at some of the data regarding what Americans think about each other, and it’s really sobering, the level of partisan hatred, just sheer hatred. We talked about this I think several weeks ago, but surveys indicating that up to 20 percent of one political party believes that the United States would be better off if a substantial portion of their political opponents would just die, that up to 20 percent of partisans think that their opponents have subhuman characteristics, where the overwhelming majority description of your political opponents is as brainwashed, as racist, as hateful. That’s a bipartisan phenomenon.
I think she’s talking about, in her own quirky way, the central organizing force of American politics right now, which, as much as we’ve been talking about the wokeness on the left and the Trumpism on the right, is negative polarization. It’s the loathing of the other side. That’s the central organizing principle of American politics.
She’s hitting on something that is very dark in American politics. It is a deep problem for our country. And she is right that wonkiness won’t solve it, and in some ways wonkiness exacerbates it, because it’s the wonkiness for radicalism. It’s this “Hey, my data says we should completely upend a vast segment of this economy, and, oh, by the way, you’re a horrible human being if you disagree with me” sort of mentality that’s exacerbating all of this stuff.
Yeah, she hit on something, and she hit on something important. It was in her quirky way a really, really true-to-human-experience moment. I kind of felt bad for my Sauron GIF. I didn’t delete the tweet because it was still pretty funny.
Michael: Of course. It is funny. Well, listen, a couple of comments about Marianne. Her debate performance, I actually think, was not just good for the surprise insight that came from her third eye or her eighth chakra or whatever; it was also she performed well, I think, in conventional terms, in the sense of she has a commanding, charismatic persona. She has a kind of accent that draws you in, sort of is odd. She kept bringing the focus back to defeating Donald Trump, which is, for the Democrats watching, their chief goal.
Then she had this moment, and I think it’s a moment that . . . I’m currently working on a column saying that, in a way, her approach resonates more than Pete Buttigieg’s because Pete Buttigieg’s approach to the spiritual condition of our country is just to reprobate Republicans as hypocrites. I actually think Marianne’s contrast of the forces of fear versus love, or collective hatred versus healing — actually, there’s a therapeutic bridge between her New Ageism and even the Evangelical Right as it currently exists.
Luke: I was going to say exactly this. Marianne Williamson is the only candidate on that stage who can appeal to nondenominational Evangelical Christians. No, I’m not kidding. I have been on the Williamson train from the beginning. She is vastly underrated.
This woman has sold 4 million books to members of the middle and working classes who live in middle America. She is a household name. She’s well known to a lot of people. She is well known to people who watch Oprah, people that you know. If you have never heard of Marianne Williamson, let me tell you, there are people that you know, many of them have read at least one of her books. And the ubiquity of New Age loosey-goosey spirituality in the United States in the year 2019 cannot be understated.
Michael: Yeah, I think —
Luke: Or overstated, sorry.
Michael: Ben Smith of BuzzFeed had an interesting tweet where he said he was hanging around the debate stages or whatever, and that he was talking to one of the people on Williamson’s staff who said, yeah, when we come in, the hosts of media shows are openly laughing and cackling at Marianne Williamson and making fun of her as some kind of anti-vaxxer and crackpot, but all the makeup ladies greet her and start crying and opening their guts to her, maybe both physically and metaphorically. Maybe they’re looking for some —
Luke: She is an extremely gifted communicator. If you have not watched her interview on The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert: Colbert comes into it, he presses her out of the gate to try to make her look silly, and she turns the audience against him very effectively. She has proximity to celebrity, a lot of low-key name recognition, and is very good on television. The person she’s most like in this race, if we want to go back to 2016, is Ben Carson. Ben Carson was a guy who, where I’m from in the Midwest, was a household name. Everybody had a copy of Gifted Hands on their bookshelves, and yet nobody in New York or D.C. or in the general Acela politics media world had ever heard of him.
David: Well, and the other thing as far . . . We’ve talked about dark psychic forces of collective hatred, but there was also hidden within that answer a really troubling truth. That troubling truth is when she said she lived in Grosse Pointe, and what happened in Flint would have never happened in Grosse Pointe. This is hitting on inequality in a much more lived-experience kind of way than talking about income differences. When you talk about, well, in this country there are some communities that are vulnerable to lead poisoning and others that are not, that really does hit home.
I agree with Luke that she is a gifted communicator. I think the handicap that she faces is that, even though she has sold millions of copies of her books, and even though she has, what, the third-, fourth-largest Twitter following of anyone on the debate stage, really immense platform on social media, she still is not as well known as Ben Carson was, and she’s far, far, far less known than Donald Trump was in 2015, when he’d been a mega-celebrity for 30 years. She has this very deep level of . . . She has a following that’s large and intense, but still small from the standpoint of national name recognition for a presidential race, which I think is one of the reasons why she was the most heavily Googled person in 49 out of 50 states. It’s a combo of “Wow, look at what she said” and “Oh, wow, who is this person?” I think she is well known in . . . She has a fame or notoriety that dwarfs any of ours, of course, but when you’re talking about a nation of 320 million people, she’s still kind of niche.
Michael: I want to ask about Marianne Williamson as an exit question, double-barreled. Will other Democratic candidates pick up on her attempt to speak to the nation spiritually and therapeutically, and is this the last time we’ll actually see Marianne Williamson in these debates? Luke Thompson?
Luke: It is not the last time we’ll see her. I think she will qualify for future debates. I think that Cory Booker will try. He’ll blend with it some of the rhetoric of the black church, and we’ll see if it’s effective. In the past when he’s gone there, it’s been a little tin-eared.
Michael: Okay. David French?
David: I agree with every syllable of that.
Michael: Yes, Luke Thompson is right, fully and totally. That is why he’s the smartest political consultant.
Luke: It helps when you’re the only one.
Michael: All right. Also on the first night, I think the two biggest stars were Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the people that people were watching for. It was surprising to me to see, at least in that debate, the lines become much clearer that there are moderates in the Democratic party willing to fight for their corner and not just cower in fear of Elizabeth Warren’s wonkery or Bernie Sanders’s moral case against the billionaire class and call for political revolution.
Michael: Luke Thompson, what did you make of Warren and Sanders and the progressive end of that first night of the debate? Were they still strong, or was this introducing doubts in our mind?
Luke: I don’t think it’s introducing doubts in our mind. We saw some of the limitations that Warren has as a debater. She clung to this story she wanted to tell about a progressive activist with ALS long after the debate had moved past her, and at times she disappeared, as she did during the first night. But I think in many respects she probably came away from the first night the winner.
The most important thing she did on the first night was follow through on her campaign’s strategic decision not to engage directly with Bernie. I think that they realize that right now they’ve got a shoulder in front of him, and the best thing they can do is kill him with kindness to bring his people over to them as his campaign seems to lose strategic focus and momentum.
Having said that, we saw the best version of Bernie on the first night. He was funny. He was lively. He was spry. He was, insofar as he might lapse —
Michael: He was quippy.
Luke: He was quippy. Bernie is funny. He does not have a lot of range and he is not a brilliant person, but he was good. The problem is that we’ve seen a lot of Bernie over the last four years, and I wonder if even the best version of Bernie feels like old news.
Michael: Yeah. I thought this was his most charming debate. “How do you respond to this?” “You’re wrong.”
Luke: “You’re wrong. I wrote the damn bill.”
Michael: I liked him as a person more in this debate, but I do take your point.
David, what did you make of these two on the first night? These are the two that I think people are saying, “Oh, just wait until they’re on the stage directly with Biden.” So what did you make of them?
David: I was less impressed. I think that when you’re talking about Elizabeth Warren and when you’re talking about Bernie Sanders, I feel like I’m watching the progressive con version of the Trump con, which was “I’m going to build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” I exempt Bernie a little bit from this because he’s just been beating the same drum for 40 years, but Elizabeth Warren is smart enough to know that these plans upon plans and layers upon layers of action items are pipe dreams. They’re just absolute pipe dreams. Yet she’s going on acting as if the only thing that’s preventing us from revolutionizing the American economy along the lines that she has meticulously ordered is our lack of ability to dream big enough, which is just absurd.
I think I was reading, it might’ve been Ross Douthat, a day or so ago, but this idea that the kind of platform that Joe Biden has and some of these other more moderate Democrats have, a public option, free two-year college, extremely aggressive, by historical standards, actions on climate change, that all of that would just be a failure. That would just be a failure for a Democratic president. In other words, the most effective Democratic president at passing significant policy reform since Johnson would be a failure, and the only thing that’s dreaming big enough is the kind of dreams that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are dreaming.
I saw a lot of speculation on CNN that, well, just wait until it’s down to the small group, and watch Elizabeth Warren carve up Joe Biden, but Joe Biden has some pretty simple responses. How are you going to fund even part of the $3 trillion a year in new spending on health care alone? That simple question, they don’t have a great answer to. Bernie, at least, is honest enough to say, Yep, we’re going to be raising your taxes.
I’m a little bit less impressed at this very wonkish, meticulous, planned manner with which Warren approaches things, and I’m definitely unimpressed with the notion when she gets pushback of “Well, if you didn’t want to dream big, why’d you get into politics?” sort of answer, when the idea that you’re going to do any of this requires not just beating Donald Trump but sweeping Cocaine Mitch out of office or out of the Senate majority-leader position, sweeping aside a filibuster-proof majority, and then persuading people to essentially sacrifice their careers on the altar of the most radical left-wing legislative project in modern history. That’s why I feel like we’re just watching a progressive con unfold.
Michael: I’m of two minds in that, on the one hand, Donald Trump promised that Mexico was going to pay for the wall, and he won. Big, unrealistic, totally unfeasible promises, they don’t always hurt. On the other hand —
Michael: — John Delaney, I think, did actually punch her pretty hard and punch the idea of Medicare for All pretty hard by saying “Listen, Medicare pays at 80 percent of the costs of the medical services that are given under Medicare. Private insurance pays 120 percent of the costs due to it. And if you compensate every medical institution and employee at 80 percent, you’re going to see hospitals close.” I thought that was very simple, straightforward, and effective. I think people understood it. On the other hand, I did think Warren was savvy to emphasize how much people hate the endless paperwork and the endless phone menus that people face when they’re dealing with their private insurance, often through their job.
Luke, what did you make of Warren overall, and is she going to be able to compete with Biden directly? I think we’re going to see this soon, not just Warren competing with Bernie but clashing directly with Biden. I think that’s what most progressives and most of the media, I think, are clamoring for.
Luke: I don’t think we’ll ever see her clash with Bernie. I think she knows that that’s not in her interest. I think she also knows that Bernie will attack her, and then that puts her in a better position. Yes, we will see her attack Biden directly, but how that plays is going to depend a lot on how Biden responds.
In the first night, there were five centrists on the stage, more or less, and Williamson actually sided with them a little bit on the Medicare for All. But if you look at the way they responded, Amy Klobuchar went into witness protection. She’s done. Forget her. I don’t know why she ever ran for president. John Hickenlooper looks like a weird vampire. He’s out. Forget him.
Really, what it fell down to was Bullock, Ryan, and Delaney to defend their opposition to Medicare for All. Bullock swallowed his tongue, couldn’t get a sentence out, seemed nervous. Okay. Then it came down to Ryan and Delaney, who both gave very earnest and impassioned critiques of the Medicare for All position. The problem is that that’s where they stopped.
Nobody representing the non–Medicare for All lane, if you want to use that term, of the party has offered an affirmative defense of Obamacare. Until you can make an affirmative defense of the structure of the status quo while articulating things you would do to improve it, you’re going to wind up just stuck in the water. The closest thing we have to that is Pete Buttigieg’s sort of “You can have your cake and eat it too,” “Medicare for All who want it” approach, which I think is susceptible to being punctured both from the left and from the right.
But if you’re really going to oppose Medicare for All, there are only two arguments that you should make. The first was made on night one. This will take health care away from 150 to 180 million people, including union members. That will make it unpalatable in the general election and reelect Donald Trump. Argument number two, Obamacare is working. Why are you spitting on the legacy of Barack Obama, the most effective and successful Democratic president of my lifetime?
Those are the only two arguments that they have. The first got made, however artlessly. It was made earnestly and impassionedly by John Delaney more than the others. The second one was AWOL.
Michael: Yeah, I think Biden is trying to do this. I actually think he is trying to thread the needle you are talking about. I do think, however, it is just fascinating as a political matter that both nights you have basically a 40-minute opening exchange on health care even though a major health-care reform was the incredible achievement/psychodrama of the previous Democratic presidency. It does lead to this weird tension of “Are the Democrats running on the legacy of Barack Obama or against it?” I think that characterized the uncertain feeling there. In a way, it almost felt like it almost hurts the party, that the issue that they spent so much political capital on in the last presidency is still the number-one issue they’re facing in these debates, both rounds of them.
Exit question on this section. Is the socialist–social democracy tide in the Democratic party still rising, or has it crested, or is it beginning to recede? David French?
David: It’s still rising, but with a little bit less momentum. I think that the thing that really marked the difference between this round of debates from the last round of debates is there just was no real meaningful pushback against that rising socialist tide, democratic socialist tide, whereas this time both nights there was strong pushback, including from the guy who just so happens to have a commanding lead in the polls. I do think the tide is still rising. I think it’s rising more slowly. I also feel like that as of right now, the hopes of more-moderate Democrats are pinned on a 76-year-old Joe Biden, who’s obviously lost a bit of his fastball and isn’t as prepared as they might like to defend the Democratic legacy of the last generation.
Michael: Luke Thompson, is the socialist–social democracy tide still rising, cresting, or receding?
Luke: Well, it is rising. It’s going to continue to rise. If I may say, there’s a very good article in the print issue of National Review from May of 2017, written by someone, that argues that the Democratic coalition is shifting into a position that will encourage the incentives for strongly ideological politics becoming the norm. I think that’s what we’re going to see. Even if Biden somehow pulls out this nomination and somehow beats Donald Trump, he’s all but explicitly a one-term president, at which point we’d do this whole cycle over again.
Michael: Yeah, I’m beginning to think along Luke Thompson lines, that in a way the tea-party congressional election of 2010 was the last gasp of the ideological Republican-party politics in the way that you described, and that the election of AOC and others, and the forthcoming and current primary pressure in urban districts against guys like Nadler and others, is still moving the party left and into a more ideological position.
Before we wrap things up, I want to go to our light items. David, what has been bringing you joy or lightness in life this week?
David: I’m late to this, but I’ve been really enjoying HBO’s Succession, which is, as near as I can tell, loosely based on a Fox News–style media empire and the struggle to succeed the aging patriarch of the family. I’d heard it was good. I had heard it was worth watching. But I started watching it, and, a) it’s better than I thought it would be, and b) it’s a lot funnier than I thought it would be. It’s just a fantastic show. It’s a good bridge between . . . It’s a good bridge right now in a slow time when there is no college football. NBA playoffs are over. The summer movie season is winding down, except for Hobbs & Shaw, coming out tomorrow.
David: I will be there. That —
Luke: How many times are you going to go see that, David?
David: You know, that’s a really good question. I usually go in the theater twice to a good Rock movie, and then —
David: Then when it comes out on iTunes, then I can’t even count how many times I’ll rewatch it. My light item next week will be Hobbs & Shaw, but before then, HBO’s Succession.
Michael: Luke Thompson, what’s your light item this week?
Luke: I am listening to the audiobook of The Right Stuff, narrated by Dennis Quaid. I’ve read The Right Stuff a couple of times when I was quite a bit younger, but I have to give a lot of credit to Quaid, who has a higher, reedier voice than I realized, but it’s quite affecting. I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for an audiobook. It’s on Audible. He does a really great job with Wolfe’s prose.
Michael: Very good. All right, my light item this week is, some years ago, we had a little windfall in my household and we bought nice cameras. We bought one of the nice full-frame cameras and then we bought a cheaper, carry-it-along Olympus camera. I started updating the lenses and body stuff because now we have children and want to document, and I love the amateur-toward-enthusiast level of camera gear that’s out there.
I’m becoming, I think, an Olympus fanboy. I like the micro four-thirds system. If people are into digital photography, they know that this is the smaller sensor system that’s been pooh-poohed by a lot of professional photographers, but it’s just a great product. I get amazing results for my level of experience. It’s at a level where YouTube videos and other photographers that are trying to make a little money on the side with tutorials and stuff like that. There’s just this wealth of stuff to try. And as I head into hopefully some vacation time soon, I’m looking to try my hand at some neutral density filters on my camera and get some good landscape photography in for the first time of my life.
Now is the time for our Editors’ Picks. David, this is where we pick great articles that are available at National Review. David, what is your pick this week?
David: I really appreciated Kevin Williamson talking about poverty. Kevin is wonderful. He has a disproportionate impact on our Editors’ Picks on a week in-week-out basis. Kevin on poverty, he’s one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking writers out there. He provided a nice corrective to the zeitgeist of the moment in the conservative world, which was piling onto Democratic leaders in cities for their failures, and there have been many failures of Democratic leaders to deal with problems of urban poverty, by noting that there are extraordinarily poor Republican areas that are nearly every bit as red as Democratic cities are blue, he talked about Owsley County, Ky., for example, that are in the grips of their own cycle of multigenerational poverty. It was a necessary corrective to this “Ha ha, look, one set of partisans is really bad at this” hectoring that we’ve seen over the last week.
Michael: Yeah, that was a good piece.
Luke Thompson, what is your pick?
Luke: I’m going to go with Jim Geraghty’s piece posted this morning on Biden’s performance in the debate. I think that Jim is just a great analyst. This is in my view the best case that can be made for Biden’s candidacy, and he does it very well. Frankly, people should read The Morning Jolt and read what Jim writes anyway.
Michael: Yeah, it’s been especially good this election season. I picked The Morning Jolt last week.
For me, the piece this week was David French’s on the evangelical, the young, restless, and reformed figure Joshua Harris, who became a kind of sensation across evangelical world in the ’90s with his book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which this young man, who was still just affianced at the time, was explaining to the whole world that he had found the secret to a healthy marriage and love. Anyway, it had a profound effect on Evangelical youth groups and discourse at the time, which David talks about from personal experience. I just thought David’s piece got at the legalistic sense of Joshua Harris’s project. In a sense, it falls afoul of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which you set up a law that ends up convicting people and leaving them feeling accused and estranged from their God. I just thought it was a great piece.
That is it for us this week. That is it for The Editors. I am so thankful, I am so honored, to be in Rich’s chair temporarily. We will welcome him back next week, I believe.
That’s it for us. I am not going to give Rich’s MLB-like ending to the podcast. Thank you so much. Slán abhaile.