These debates have a modest impact on the nominating process because there are so many debates and because the first votes will not be cast for more than four months, but debates provide some insight into the state of the race and what we might see in the coming months. The race now looks like one where the frontrunner is flawed and perhaps out of touch ideologically with both the Democratic Party and a majority of the American people, but also where second tier candidates are struggling to break through in such a crowded field, and where the progressive vote is largely split between Sanders and Warren. Some of this may sort itself out in the next few months, but the large and impressive field, could make this a long primary season.
On Thursday night, ten Democratic candidates will gather for the third official debate of this primary season. This debate will only be one night and include only ten candidates, so it should be smoother and more useful for potential voters. However, it is still likely that much of the debate will be taken up by detailed discussions of policy proposals on issues like health care, gun regulations or the environment. These discussions are worthwhile, interesting and give a good sense of what the candidates believe, but the emphasis on details belies the reality that presidents don’t make policy. They are merely part of a process along with congress and in many cases the states and the courts. These detailed discussions of policies seem like the right subject for the debate, but there are other bigger picture questions that are probably more important. Below are three questions that Democratic voters should be asking their candidates, but that might not be raised on Thursday night.
When told that Biden, or any other candidate, is electable, we should remember that while some broad trends about electability, such as the danger of Democratic insider resume candidates, can be discerned, electability is often a very slippery concept, that usually also falls victim to intellectual laziness and tautology. Candidates are electable because they win, so once a president is elected a backstory about electability is filled in. For example, we now “know” that Hillary Clinton was unelectable, but if 80,000 or so votes in a few key states had gone differently in 2016, the pundits would have explained that Hillary Clinton was electable because of her experience, centrist policies and calm temperament and that Donald Trump’s bigotry and mental instability scared off too many voters and made him unelectable. The problem with this approach to electability is that it is not predictive. It is not a theory; rather, it is essentially just political kibitzing both before and after the election.
In the last few weeks, Seth Moulton, John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee have dropped out of the Democratic primary campaign for president. Hickenlooper and Inslee both had resumes that in previous elections could have made them frontrunners for the nomination, but their campaigns never got any traction this year. Both also immediately turned their attention to other elections. Inslee will seek a third term as governor of Washington while Hickenlooper will run for the Senate in Colorado against Republican incumbent Cory Gardner. Moulton, like Eric Swalwell a few weeks earlier, has decided to run for his safe congressional seat rather than continue a presidential campaign he had almost no chance of winning. Gillibrand will return to the Senate.
While some have lauded the series, many conservatives have been critical of The 1619 Project, asserting that it is racially divisive, partisan or forces them to confront aspects of American past they would rather continue ignoring. These conservatives have also accused the New York Timesof engaging in propaganda rather than news reporting. While the 1619 series is not news reporting in the sense of telling readers about the events of the day, or of even analyzing the events of the day. It is a longform essay of the kind that we see in many newspapers that are seeking to be a little more interesting and yes, economically viable, in a time when media is changing. However, it is not the length of the series or the fact that it examines historical events that infuriates conservatives. Rather, it is that the 1619 series challenges shibboleths on which the US was founded, and is a reminder that the white supremacy that is rearing its nefarious and pathetic head once again in places like Charlottesville, El Paso and the White House, has long been part of American life.
The debate around gun regulations has an unusual dynamic. Supporters of gun regulations make arguments around public health, saving lives and data that shows that limiting access to guns reduces murders and mass killings. Opponents give lip service to opposing these points, but more frequently refer to the Second Amendment, which they interpret to mean that the state cannot pass any laws limiting access to guns. Gun advocates use the Second Amendment not only as a rationale for their views, but as a way so squash any debate on the subject, particularly those grounded in data. Seeing gun advocates cite the Second Amendment in the face of every guard arguments brings up memories of Charlie Brown’s response when confronted with the dismal state of his baseball team.
The typical mass shooter in the US is a heavily armed white man who is angry about something. The specific roots of that anger are not always the same, but in many cases the targets of that anger are Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, LGBT people or some combination of those groups. These acts of domestic terrorism are increasingly not simply meant to kill random Americans while frightening all of us, but to kill specific groups of Americans while sending a message to members of those groups that we are no longer safe in the US.
As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
The strangest thing about Donald Trump’s latest racist tantrum is how many people are surprised, outraged or think this is now the definitive proof of Trump’s racism. Trump has been a deeply racist individual and also the product of a deeply racist system since before Twitter was invented. To not recognize that is both a deliberate attempt to live in a fantasy world and also to fundamentally not understand America. Trump was a racist of the most venal and hateful kind long before he became a presidential candidate, yet because of America’s deep unwillingness to wrestle with, or even acknowledge, our racist history, well into 2018 you could turn on CNN or some similar media outlet and hear an earnest discussion of whether or not Trump is a racist.
Sinclair Lewis may or may not have written that "(w)hen fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross." Regardless of who said it first, that sentiment has captured the revulsion many Americans have long felt when far right leaders cloak their bigotry, cruelty and anti-democratic policies in false patriotism and Christianity. As the tragedy of the Trump administration continues, it is evident that Lewis’s sentiment, while still resonant, should be modified somewhat. Under Trump, democratic rollback is wrapped in a clown suit and is carrying a smartphone.
The Democratic presidential debates on Wednesday and Thursday nights were without precedent. Twenty potential nominees, which did not even represent the full field, debated with each other over the course of two evenings. This field of twenty will be winnowed in the next months with a nominee emerging somewhere between April and mid-July of 2020. The debates are only one component of what will be a long campaign, but they are the most important and high profile to date.
The most important thing the DNC can be doing right now is not simply to determine the debate schedule or threshold for getting into the debates, or even to raise money for the general election campaign, but creating and implementing a comprehensive strategy to ensure and defend democratic elections next November. This includes things like assembling teams of attorneys in key states around the country, educating voters about their rights, creating hotlines and the like to report voter intimidation and similar problems, keeping the discussion of election security in the media and seeking commitments from Democrats and Republicans to accept the outcome of the election
In November 0f 1972, a very competitive US Senate in Delaware race saw Republican J. Caleb Boggs lose a bid for his third term by fewer than 3,200 votes to a 29 year-old Democrat. That campaign is relevant again today because it was the last time Joseph Biden won a competitive election. For incumbents, the best way to ensure reelection is to show enough strength that potentially strong opponents decide not to run. Biden was masterful at this winning reelection to the Senate against weak opposition six times, including in 2008 when he was also running for vice-president. The skills that Biden employed to do that have helped him get out to an early lead in the Democratic primary, but would be completely irrelevant against Donald Trump in a general election.
The consensus that has emerged from Mueller’s statement his that rather than indict the President, he has given Congress a mandate to pursue impeachment. This allows Mueller to present himself like an institutionalist, suggesting that our Constitutional processes can kick into gear and right the wrongs of the Trump campaign administration. The problem with this ostensibly patriotic notion is that anybody who has been paying attention knows that congress will never remove Trump from office because there will never be 67 votes in the GOP controlled Senate to convict him. Thus, by pushing the responsibility to Congress, all Mueller really accomplishes is to create a political conundrum for Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House and leader of the Democratic Party in Washington. If Mueller was not aware of this, it is not because he eschews politics, but because he is appallingly ignorant. For that reason, it is likely he was aware of the consequence of what he was doing, which raises the question of why he did it.
As the prospect of impeachment seems greater with almost every passing day, it is worth remembering that the most likely political scenario is that impeachment proceedings will have little impact on public opinion or the election of 2020. It is possible that a Senator like Harris, Warren or Booker might have a few moments that go viral, but that will little impact on opinions of Trump itself. The 35% or so of the country that stuck with Trump thus far will watch Fox News and be told that the Democrats are desperate, suffering from Trump derangement syndrome and the like, while a slightly larger proportion of the country will watch MSNBC and various other left of center media outlets, certain in the widespread criminality of Trump and the people around him. Some of those people will be even be foolish enough to believe that some finding or another will finally break the case open to the larger American public, but they will be wrong.
Over the last few election cycles we have learned pretty definitively that we know a lot less about electability than we think we do. Our last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, were both viewed as axiomatically unelectable when they began their campaigns for the White House. Moreover, most candidates have both positive and negative and electoral traits so their overall electability becomes a post facto assessment rather than having any predictive value. For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton was very electable until she wasn’t. Similarly, had John Kerry beat George W. Bush in 2004, the punditry would have explained that as a war hero with years of experience he was the perfect candidate, but he lost narrowly, so we have been told he was a northeaster liberal with limited charisma and therefore a week candidate. Given this, when somebody tells you they think a particular primary candidate is electable, what they usually mean is simply that they are supporting that candidate.
On April 25th, 2019 the San Francisco Historical Society hosted a discussion of my book Baseball Goes West: the Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues. The discussant was longtime baseball executive Corey Busch. The event was held at the San Francisco Athletic Club.
In the years since the 2016 campaign, various media figures and institutions, including the New York Times,haveapologizedfor their shoddy coverageof that election and of Donald Trump. The gist of these sentiments have been that media outlets made a mistake by allowing themselves to be pulled like moths to the flame that was Donald Trump’s strange, unconventional and sensational candidacy, while failing to give enough coverage to his primary opponents and creating a false equivalency between Trump’s scandals and those related to Hillary Clinton. Despite these mistakes, most of the media similarly botched their coverage of Attorney General William Barr’s letter to congressional leaders summarizing the final report by Special Investigator Robert Mueller.
The Mueller report is an important historical document that scholars will study closely in future decades, but as a political document it was always going to going to have a limited impact. Based on the indictments and information we have learned in the 20 months of the investigation, it is clear that Trump had, at the very least, an untoward relationship with Moscow that should make any American, regardless of party, deeply concerned. It was also clear that even if the report had called for indicting the entire Trump family, Trump’s Tweets about “witch hunts” and “no collusion” were going to be believed by the third or so of the American people that are now his praetorian guard.
It may be that in 2016, it was not Sanders who consolidated the anti-Clinton sentiment, but Clinton who consolidated the anti-Sanders sentiment. As the primaries went on voters who found Sanders too far left, did not like his inability and seeming unwillingnessto connect to non-white voters, or chafed at the sexism of many in his campaign, had nowhere to go but to Clinton. In 2020, according to this view, the vote that went to Clinton will be dispersed among all the other candidates while Sanders will hold his base. If that happens, Sanders will be in a very good position to win the nomination.