The Morning Jolt


The Democratic Presidential Candidates Love to Emote, But Can They Govern?

Democratic 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke reacts during a kickoff rally in El Paso, Texas, March 30, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: How last night’s Democratic presidential debate turned into a festival of emoting for the cameras, Beto O’Rourke hits a brick wall, and the first bad review of Between Two Scorpions.

Running for President, and Being President, Requires More Than Emoting

Imagine you’re a Democrat with presidential ambitions, and you’ve chosen to run this cycle. You probably look back to the past two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for lessons. Both men were described as once-in-a-generation political talents, and what people usually mean by that phrase is that they were both really good at giving speeches and what’s called “retail politics” — shaking hands at the New Hampshire diner, responding to questions at the town-hall meeting, making audiences laugh at the county party fish fries and banquet dinners.

What is Bill Clinton’s most famous quote, beyond disputing the definition of is? Probably “I feel your pain.” Despite widespread belief that he said it in the second presidential debate of 1992, he actually said it to an AIDS activist who was heckling him on the campaign trail months earlier: “I have treated you and all the people who’ve interrupted my rally with a hell of a lot more respect than you’ve treated me, and it’s time you started thinking about that. I feel your pain, I feel your pain, but if you want to attack me personally, you’re no better than Jerry Brown and all the rest of these people who say whatever sounds good at the moment.” Nonetheless, Bill Clinton became widely considered a deeply empathetic leader — hugging anyone who told him a tale of trouble or woe. Obama eventually earned more criticism for allegedly being “aloof.”

Almost everyone in politics has embraced that Maya Angelou observation, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” George H. W. Bush famously summarized in off-the-cuff remarks, “Message: I care.”  Last night in the first Democratic presidential debate, every candidate was trying to assure the voters and viewers at home, “I care about you.”

All of the candidates on stage last night competed to demonstrate that they felt the most pain of the most Americans. They described an America of 2019 that was downright dystopic.

Elizabeth Warren said the economy was only “doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top” and that the government “is corrupt.” Cory Booker declared, “I see every single day that this economy is not working for average Americans” and lamented that “Dignity is being stripped from labor” and that “This is actually an economy that’s hurting small businesses and not allowing them to compete.” Bill de Blasio argued, “There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands. Democrats have to fix that.” Amy Klobuchar described “so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums.” (I thought Obamacare was supposed to fix that!)  Tim Ryan lamented, “We’re getting drones shot down for $130 million, because the president is distracted.”

Despite President Trump canceling a military retaliation against Iran at the last minute, Tulsi Gabbard warned, “Donald Trump and his cabinet, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and others — are creating a situation that just a spark would light off a war with Iran, which is incredibly dangerous.” (Notice she blames Trump and his cabinet for creating the situation, not the Iranians.)

This occurs as the national unemployment rate has been at or below four percent since March 2018, and hit the lowest rate since 1969. Even half of Democrats rate the economy as “good” or “excellent.” No doubt the people most likely to watch two hours of ten Democratic candidates debating are the most partisan, and probably the ones most likely to insist that because Donald Trump is president, the economy simply cannot be doing well. But one has to wonder how well the message “I will save you from this terrible economy” will work in a general election.

When given two minutes to answer, a candidate can never give more than a cursory description of his policy plans. Last night, most candidates skipped over that, when they bothered to address the asked question at all. Frequently they simply talked about the topics they wish they had been asked to address. Tulsi Gabbard was asked, “Your thoughts on equal pay?” and within a few sentences, she was declaring, “For too long, our leaders have failed us, taking us from one regime change war to the next, leading us into a new cold war and arms race, costing us trillions of our hard-earned taxpayer dollars and countless lives.”

The problem is, emoting isn’t governing. Emoting isn’t even really thinking about a problem. It’s just another form of performance. Yesterday I noted that even with his golden resume, Pete Buttigieg is having a really tough time managing his city’s response to a racially charged fatal police shooting in South Bend. Good credentials and a high IQ are not enough to govern well. Neither is caring, or even convincing public displays of caring.

Over at the New York Post, the notorious theocrat (I kid, I kid) Sohrab Ahmari discusses the photo of the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria Ramírez and asks what Democrats actually want to do in response to waves of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and claim asylum.  The Post headline declares that being outraged isn’t enough. But clearly for a lot of Democrats, it is.

When asked about the deaths in the Ramirez family, Julian Castro declared he is “very proud that in April I became the first candidate to put forward a comprehensive immigration plan” and then quickly focused on how outraged he was: “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter, Valeria, is heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off. Castro eventually added that he would remove the metering policy, which limits the number of people who can claim asylum at any given time. Castro described it as “playing games with people who are coming and trying to seek asylum at our ports of entry.”

Mind you, Ramirez did not appear to have a legitimate claim for asylum, according to accounts from his family.

Ramírez said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Ramírez said. “They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”

What’s more, Ramirez had the chance to make his case to the U.S. consulate.

The Tamaulipas government official said the family arrived in Matamoros early Sunday and went to the U.S. Consulate to try to get a date to request asylum. The mother is 21 years old and the father was 25, he added.

It’s not clear what happened to the family at the U.S. Consulate, but later in the day they made the decision to cross. The Tamaulipas official said the father and daughter set off from a small park that abuts the river. Civil defense officials arrived at the scene at 7 p.m. Sunday and later took the wife to the shelter.

The only policy that would have prevented Ramirez from attempting to swim across the Rio Grande is one that let him in and allowed him to work in the United States simply because he wanted to enter.

If we want better policies, we need to be able to discuss them openly and acknowledge difficult realities. Enforcing immigration law as it is written means some people will be denied legal entry. When that happens, some of the rejected applicants will inevitably attempt to enter the country illegally, and that process often involves a considerable amount of danger — if not from the currents of the Rio Grande, then from thirst in the desert, being abused by unscrupulous human traffickers and smugglers, hiding in locked and unventilated tractor-trailers, or other dangers. The only policy that would ensure this never happens is open borders — the idea that anyone who wants to enter the United States and work here can do so, just by showing up and presumably passing a background check.

Citizens of the United States of America are not responsible for the choices that citizens of other countries make. When 289 Central American migrants, including some with children suffering from measles and chickenpox, choose to get into the back of a tractor trailer, they are making a terribly dangerous and foolish choice. They should be warned of the fatal risks and discouraged in every possible way. If American policy is to let these people stay, we will inevitably encourage more people to take the same risks. In some cases, the truly compassionate policy, the one that saves more lives in the long run, is the one where you say “no.”

The End of Beto

I get stuff wrong sometimes. Back in 2016, I didn’t think there was a way that Trump would sweep the table and win Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I thought Mitt Romney would do better than he did in 2012.

But I get stuff right, too. Back in 2010, I said Bobby Schilling had a chance to beat incumbent Phil Hare long before anyone else noticed, and was talking about Marco Rubio as a rising star back in August 2009, when few thought he would derail Charlie Crist. I nailed the outcome of the Scott Brown’s election in 2010, down to the percentages.

And I want credit for seeing an empty suit when Beto O’Rourke burst upon the national scene in 2010, and contending he was yet another example of the national media seeing what it desperately wanted to see, a Democrat who could win in the South. O’Rourke had the worst night of anyone on the stage last night, and it’s time to acknowledge he was never as good as his press clippings from last year promised.

ADDENDUM: The first bad review for Between Two Scorpions! Apparently, I use too any adjectives.

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