The Morning Jolt


These Bad and Boring Debates

From left: Activist Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on stage for the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

On the menu today is just a big review of why last night’s debate was pretty terrible — not for partisan or ideological reasons, but for the way it offered the viewers watching at home the soothing balm that the next president won’t face any truly difficult decisions — and a reminder that we were supposed to be in Armageddon by now.

These Are Bad Debates

I’m not a fan of these debates, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not a Democrat.

On foreign policy, the default answer of every Democratic candidate is always: “we need to work with our allies.” As a slogan, that’s fine as far as it goes, but anybody who has paid attention to foreign policy knows that our allies don’t always want to do what we want to do. Back in 2015, the New York Times reported that even before the Iran deal was signed, “European leaders and executives were heading to the airport to restart trade with an Iranian market described in almost feverish terms as ‘an El Dorado’ and potential ‘bonanza.’” Our allies had much fewer qualms or doubts about doing business with an oppressive regime and enriching them in exchange for promises about pausing their nuclear program.

On paper, I should be an easy target for the “work with our allies” argument. I concur that Trump treats the leaders of allied countries terribly and gets into petty fights and embarrassing public name-calling with such figures as Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel. He tries to ingratiate himself with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. He wanted to invite the Taliban to Camp David around the 9/11 anniversary. Bizarrely, the less an ally acts like an ally, the more Trump seems to respect him — think of Recep Erdogan.

But the answer “we need to work with our allies” glides around the tougher question: What do we do when we want to take a particular course of action and our allies don’t? Do they get an effective veto? The only honest answer is that it depends upon the circumstances, and every presidential candidate’s argument amounts to: “Trust my judgment on the hard calls.”

Senators, mayors, and hedge-fund billionaires don’t make a lot of hard foreign-policy calls — and vice presidents don’t get the final say; otherwise we probably wouldn’t have launched the raid on Osama bin Laden. The discussion of what to do about Iran in 2020 quickly turned into the millionth relitigation of the 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War. Presidential candidates usually prefer to discuss what we should have done then instead of what we ought to do now — besides, of course, “work with our allies.” Last night, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden brought up their opposition to the war in Vietnam. I think Pete Buttigieg could have won the nomination if he had just blurted out, “okay, Boomer.”

You also figure a lot of these candidates think they will avoid serious disagreements with allies. Most lawmakers walk around with a wildly exaggerated sense of their own persuasiveness. The all-time champion of this must have been William Borah’s response to the news that Nazi Germany had invaded Poland: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler — all this might have been averted.”

Yes, it is difficult to lay out specifics in the short amount of time that candidates are given to speak.  But the result often turns into incoherent and contradictory gobbledygook.

Here’s Amy Klobuchar, when asked: “would you leave troops in the Middle East or would you pull them out?”

I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now. Afghanistan, I have long wanted to bring our troops home. I would do that. Some would remain for counterterrorism and training. In Syria, I would not have removed the 150 troops from the border with Turkey. I think that was a mistake. I think it made our allies and many others much more vulnerable to ISIS. And then when it comes to Iraq, right now, I would leave our troops there, despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.

So she wants to bring the troops home, but would leave some there, but not too many, but not too few, but they would do counterterrorism and training — just what the heck does she think they’re doing now? — but she would have left the troops where Trump took them out, and she would leave them in Iraq, and maybe put them back on the border with Turkey?

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of leading figures in our politics — and not just Democrats — believe that elected office comes with a magic wand. Last night I observed that the entire health-care discussion ignores the experience of the state of Vermont when it tried to enact single-payer from 2011 to 2014. There was no Republican sabotage, no foot-dragging from those allegedly nefarious conservatives, no sinister lobbyists blocking some oh-so-easy win-win idea. This is Vermont, where there’s no shortage of well-meaning progressives around. Democrats had the votes, and the governor made it his signature proposal. Everybody who mattered in state government believed in it, everybody wanted to make it happen, everyone had the best of intentions . . . and then they ran the numbers and realized enacting it would require the state to double its current overall spending. Taxes would have to be almost doubled, across the board. And the cost savings on care were projected to be pretty modest. The governor scrapped the plan as unworkable, and single-payer advocates were left insisting that a state government full of progressive Democrats just didn’t try hard enough.

Look at the way the candidates discussed health care last night:

Sanders: “We have 87 million uninsured — uninsured and underinsured, and while 30,000 people die each year . . . You’ve got 500,000 people going bankrupt because they cannot pay their medical bills. We’re spending twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country.”

Warren: “People are suffering. I’ll just pick one: 36 million people last year went to the doctor, got a prescription, this is what they needed to get well, and they couldn’t afford to have the prescription filled. They looked at it and said it’s either groceries or this prescription . . . The average family in America last year paid $12,000 in some combination of deductibles and co-pays and uncovered expenses and fees.”

Klobuchar: “We need to make it easier for people to get long-term care insurance. We need to make it easier for them to pay for their premiums.”

Too many uninsured, high premiums and deductibles and co-pays, unaffordable prescriptions, too much spending for too little care . . . none of those candidates on stage acknowledged that these were the sorts of problems that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was supposed to fix. These are the exact same complaints about the health-care system that were used to justify the passage of Obamacare. It’s as if the biggest fight in American politics in 2009 and 2010 — stretching into 2014! — was simply erased from history. And no one on that stage felt any obligation to explain why their new effort at health-care reform would work where the previous one they touted so enthusiastically didn’t. And they certainly weren’t pushed to explain that by the moderators. Sorry, Wolf Blitzer, you’re my favorite member of the Mission: Impossible team, but you should have pushed the candidates more on this.

Bernie Sanders rolled out the “our infrastructure is crumbling” line again. We spent nearly a trillion on the 2009 stimulus and hundreds of billions on transportation bills over the past decade, and all of that was supposed to fix that “crumbling infrastructure.” Why does no one ever acknowledge that their past highly touted legislative efforts did not fix the problem they’re currently lamenting?

Last night, Pete Buttigieg said, “in my lifetime, it’s almost invariably Republican presidents who have added to the deficit, a trillion dollars under this president.” It’s as if the Obama years just didn’t happen, huh? Notice Buttigieg referred to the annual deficit, not the cumulative debt. I notice a lot of Democrats do this, because then they can brag that Obama “reduced the deficit” from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $585 billion in 2016, and I think a lot of Americans are fuzzy on the difference between “reducing the deficit” and “reducing the debt.”  Overall, Obama increased the debt each year, adding up to nearly $9 trillion in new debt by the end of his two terms. Buttigieg is correct that Trump is indeed terrible on runaway spending; we’re on pace to add $5 trillion to the debt in Trump’s first term, a figure that is pretty bad considering we’ve been enjoying a good economy and should be getting higher tax revenues. Every year since 2013 has seen record federal tax payments, even with new tax cuts enacted. We have a spending problem, and neither party is seriously interested in addressing it.

Beyond that, political journalists are acknowledging that these monthly debates — hyped by the cable networks on a level just short of the Super Bowl — are pretty boring, and last night’s was surprisingly free of anything dramatic or interesting or new.

John Harris: “Most of the dynamics on display were familiar — as in, very familiar. John Podhoretz called it “the dullest major political event in years.” Kevin Drum: “Tonight’s debate was . . . really boring. No big fights. No memorable lines. No serious FUBARs. And no clear speaking, either. I found myself not really getting a good idea of what each candidate stood for even though I already knew the answer.”

I don’t think these complaints are a reflection of an audience that wants to be entertained, as Stuart Stevens contends. I think this reflects that six people on that stage want to be liked by as many future caucus-goers and primary voters as possible, which means they desperately want to avoid telling those voters anything they don’t want to hear. No Democratic-primary voter wants to hear that we’ve been hearing promises to bring all the troops home from Afghanistan for four consecutive presidential elections, and it hasn’t happened because that course of action involves risks, both to innocent Afghani civilians and Americans. They don’t want to hear that the federal government will never set up a health-care system that is simultaneously fast, high-quality, and cheap.

One of the key elements of Donald Trump’s appeal in the 2016 cycle was his repeated insistence that the answers were easy, and simply hadn’t been enacted because we were governed by idiots, wimps, and crooks. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy.” “It would be very easy, and very quick, to get gasoline prices down.” “The wall is going to be built, it’s easy.” “Mexico is going to pay for the wall, it’s going to be so easy.”

As Kevin Williamson observes, “everything is easy when you don’t know the first thing about it.”

Democratic-primary voters are not that different, despite their widespread insistence that they’re nothing like those “deplorable” Trump supporters.

ADDENDA: Hey, weren’t we supposed to be in World War III by now?

Does anybody — say, the person who freaked out about seeing a lot of troops in uniform at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International airport, and tweeted out that this had to be some sort of mobilization for war with Iran — want to pause and say, “wait a minute, maybe I overreacted and spread panic”?


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