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Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Debate: Democrats Still Looking for a Unifying Candidate

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I only wish one of the Democratic debaters had advised Nevada voters and the large national TV audience that this probably is the most important election of our lifetimes, with American democracy at stake. Not enough attention was paid to Donald Trump’s increasingly bold savaging of legal and constitutional norms—and the damage he will do if re-elected, empowered, and feeling validated.

All the candidates think that they are the best equipped to beat Trump in November. But pointing out the stakes might concentrate Democratic voters’ (and Independents’ and moderate Republicans’) minds on the imperative of defeating Trump. 

What transpired Wednesday night did not contribute to voters’ confidence that the Democratic party can unify around anyone, so determined were the contenders to savage each other, often over meaningless differences such as Amy Klobuchar’s once failing to recall the name of Mexico’s president.

As the billionaire newcomer to the debate stage—having bought his way there with $400 million worth of ads–Michael Bloomberg naturally was going to get a going-over. He did not impress anyone that he has the stuff to counter Trump. His money could keep him in the race all the way to the convention. It can’t be ruled out that he could improve as a debater and somehow be seen as a likeable candidate, but he made a horrible first impression.

He was unable to answer easily anticipated criticisms—especially coming from Elizabeth Warren—of his past crudeness toward women (and the multiple non-disclosure agreements he’s made women to sign in settlement of corporate discrimination claims), along with racist-sounding remarks he once made in explaining the 2008 economic collapse and his stop-and-frisk policing policies.

He’s late to the campaign and unpracticed in debate, but that’s no excuse for his evident lack of preparation. Or his smug, dismissive demeanor when challenged. He did not broaden his appeal and he did not explain clearly why he’s best fit to go against Trump.

I admit that I’m biased toward Amy Klobuchar. She has fewer negatives than any of the other candidates. She’s moderate, experienced, and has a record of winning Independents and Republicans as well as Democrats. She’s feisty and funny, and I’d love to see Trump try to intimidate her as he did debating Hillary Clinton in 2016. She’d knock his block off.

I thought she had a good night fending off criticism—much of it petty—from Pete Buttigieg, but no one else seems to think she measured up to her winning performance in New Hampshire. What the post-debate commentariat says counts for a lot, especially for a candidate short of long-haul money.

I thought Joe Biden put in a good performance, too. But after miserable showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s lost his front-runner status and has to hope black voters in South Carolina will save his candidacy.

Right now, Buttigieg seems to be the top contender in the moderate lane—Bloomberg having blown his opportunity to impress. But that lane is crowded and divided, much as the GOP “regular” lane was in 2016, allowing outlier Trump to win primaries and the nomination.

If other moderates got out of the race, Buttigieg might be able to go one-on-one with Sanders, but that’s unlikely to happen in time. And if Buttigieg somehow got the nomination, I doubt that Americans are ready for another national novice. Moreover, while one poll shows that  80 percent of voters would vote for a gay candidate, I suspect far fewer actually would.

Unless the party comes to its senses, Bernie Sanders—master of the far-left lane–is going to be 2018’s Trump, the Democratic nominee and (I think) a sure loser in November. According to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll, only 28 percent of voters have a favorable view of socialism, with 58 percent unfavorable.

Most polls indicate that Sanders (and most of the other Democrats) could beat Trump for the national popular vote, but among the states it’s necessary to carry to win in the Electoral College, Sanders does well in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but not Wisconsin or Florida. 

And this is before he’s been subject to the savage exposure Republicans will give his record if he’s the nominee—his past support for Communist or radical left dictators in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, his plan to nationalize American health care, the necessity of raising taxes on the middle class to pay for all the free benefits he’ll hand out to people regardless of their income.

Right now, Sanders is getting kid glove treatment from Trump, who’s acting as though Sanders is the candidate he most wants to face. That would not last a second if he’s the nominee.

Probably the best performance of all Thursday night was turned in by Elizabeth Warren, who exposed Bloomberg and made her usual passionate case for her anti-corporate, anti-rich-people agenda. Having been bested by Sanders in the left lane, she’s decided to go after candidates in the moderate lane, accusing them of not being pro-worker enough. 

Whether she can recover her previous strong position among the candidates remains to be seen. She’d be tough in debate with Trump, but while she claims to be a capitalist, her high-tax, high-regulatory, free-stuff agenda is almost as left as Sanders’s. The only difference is that she has a plan to pay for it all—with a 2 percent wealth tax that would necessitate the IRS’s valuing every rich person’s holdings (including real estate, art collections, autos, and offshore assets) every year. 

The bottom line is that while Trump continues to have a (narrowing) net negative approval rating, it looks to me as though the Democratic Party is heading for defeat in November because the candidate favored by left-wing ideological purists will win the nomination. If that happens, four years from now, the US may be an authoritarian state like Hungary or Turkey, its government allied with dictators the world over. As I say, a very critical election.

Bernie Won; He Has Bloomberg to Thank for It

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A few semi-random observations about last night’s (fiery! and riveting! in a way only a circular firing squad can be) debate:

After last night, one might be forgiven for thinking these candidates despise each other more than they despise Donald Trump. Trump was largely absent from the proceedings; he didn’t get much attention because the candidates were too busy ripping each other — and Mike Bloomberg — as false prophets. It doesn’t look to me like any of them is capable of uniting what is an increasingly fractured Democratic Party, badly divided between left activists and moderate progressives.

I thought Klobuchar didn’t have a particularly good night, and she needed one to sustain the bit of momentum she’d gained out of her decent showing in New Hampshire. She got visibly angry as the debate went on, and her weirdly intense sideline feud with Buttigieg — it’s clear she’s furious that he’s even allowed on the same stage with her, much less doing better with the voters she believes should be hers — is off-putting. She may have knocked him down a peg, but she didn’t come across at all well in those exchanges either. 

Warren did well for herself by using Bloomberg as a punching bag — they all did but she landed the disqualifying knockout blows — and if she can exceed expectations by finishing a reasonably strong second in Nevada she could potentially revive her flagging candidacy. Then again, the same is even more true of Biden: he actually did pretty well last night, landing a few effective shots at Bloomberg’s target-rich track record — and if he can finish a strong second in Nevada and then win South Carolina, he’ll be anointed (by me, anyway) the “Comeback Septuagenarian” and have real momentum going into Super Tuesday.

My biggest takeaway from the debate, though, is that Bloomberg is shaping up to be exactly what I suspected him to be from the moment he got in: a divisive spoiler candidate who will destroy any chances of the moderate progressive wing of the party to unify behind a single candidate. This should have been the debate where the other candidates ganged up on the clear frontrunner, Bernie Sanders, and fully probed his weaknesses. 

Instead, they ganged up on Bloomberg, and he showed (shocking, I know) that an aging patrician billionaire CEO who has spent decades surrounding himself with yes people isn’t likely to, (a) either speak the language of present day Democratic politics, or (b) be nimble enough as a debater to skate away from his long track record of questionable comments and policy choices. By taking the blows that should have fallen on Bernie, and by spending hundreds of millions to prop up his divisive vanity candidacy, Bloomberg’s chief impact on this race is likely to be that he hands the nomination to Sanders. 

To put it another, and more pointed, way, from my vantage point it looks like last night Mike Bloomberg died on the cross of his own hubris, thus absolving Bernie Sanders of his sins. Team Trump must be pleased. 

Killer B’s: Buttigieg Too Soon, Biden Too Late, Bloomberg Too Vulnerable. So Bernie Or…

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Well, Mayor Mike, you can’t just mail in a check—no matter how large—and expect
to win the lottery.

Mike Bloomberg showed what happens when you have so much money and power
that people don’t talk back to you; you’ve lost the ability and the edge to debate. There is
another billionaire around who hasn’t had anyone talk back to him (and survive) in three
and a half years. While folks are kissing his ring, Democrats are honing their skills.
Last night, Senators Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar showed how it works. Warren in
particular set the newbie back on his heels. The question remains: after Super Tuesday,
who emerges from the rubble of debates, caucuses and primaries.

As I wrote on Post Alley a few weeks ago, I believe we may well have a brokered
national convention in Milwaukee. Others are now talking about this and unless someone
breaks through on Super Tuesday, that’s where we are headed.

I’d be perfectly happy to pick from the senatorial trio, but everyone will win some
Super Tuesday delegates. Only Bloomberg and Sanders have the money to dominate
Super Tuesday, but both have limits. Sanders’ base is rock-solid but cannot by itself
nominate Bernie. Bloomberg last night looked old, complacent and out of shape
intellectually. Only his checkbook looks attractive.

Warren made a meal of his relationships with women, and Klobuchar pointedly noted
the dangers of two billionaires in November. Warren was overall impressive, Klobuchar
effective but not up to her performance in New Hampshire.

In the supposed Year of the Woman, these well-qualified and articulate females may
be collateral damage. The most important action Democratic voters must take here in
Washington is to preserve the candidacies of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar for
the late-primary voters.

If we move to a brokered convention, half a dozen candidates will arrive with pledged
delegates, and sophisticated “super delegates” will all have plans for second ballots and
beyond. It is not inconceivable that the situation will require candidates to release a short
list of potential running mates.

Compromise will require candidates who are willing to bend on such key issues as
health care, free college and immigration. Obviously, all will still be well to the left of
Donald Trump. Both Warren and Klobuchar—who, interestingly, defer to each other on
the debate platform and appear to have good chemistry together—may be capable of that
flexibility. It’s a Klobuchar talking point, and Warren is a realist and a results-oriented
person.

If Bernie gets the nomination, he must chose a running mate to appeal to at least one
of three important constituencies: 1) people of color, 2) women, and 3) Midwestern
swing states. Among those who have campaigned, only Klobuchar and Kamala Harris
check two boxes. Other major possibilities are either stuck in the Coastal Elites box or
cannot check a second box.

Democrats need to keep Warren and Klobuchar on the stage in Milwaukee. The
debates have showed that both can face up to Trump and obviously both have the
experience and the intellect to be president. Buttigieg is too soon, Biden too late and
Bloomberg too vulnerable. It’s Bernie and one or both of the female senators moving
forward. In a brokered convention, anything could happen.

Democrats Face A Trump Scenario?

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It was interesting to consider that just as the debate was going on, news was emerging that Bernie Sanders had thought about primarying Obama in 2012.  And the debate dwelt upon the fact that Bloomberg had supported George Bush in 2004. Add that up and you could conclude from the two apparent frontrunners, Bernie and Bloomie, that the Democratic Party is falling apart before our eyes.

It is being attacked by a non-Democrat seriously at odds with the Democratic Party (Bernie) and a former Republican seriously at odds with Democratic dogma (Bloomberg). Maybe this is the and, or the whimper, by which a party ends?

It’s also increasingly clear that we have a replay of the 2016 Republican primary, where one candidate with an unshakeable 25% of the party (Trump) is able to prevail against the crowded field of mainstream candidates, none of whom can dominate the field and few of whom are willing to bow out in time to fend off the putsch. Instead the moderates on that Las Vegas stage, goaded by the questioners, get more desperate, more angry, more prosecutorial, and so focused on attacking Bloomberg with cheap shots and signals to the Democratic orthodoxy that they neglect to project a winning persona. I thought Warren showed her law school fangs, and Buttegieg his bratty smarts. Biden and Klobuchar at least showed some heart and emotional resonance, though too defensive.

In the set-em-up/knock-em-down pattern of the media, Bloomberg will now be treated as an exploded cigar. (And Biden as a comeback kid.) But here’s one sneaky thing about Mayor Mike’s appeal. When he is attacked for being tough on crime, unsentimental about minorities, macho about women, proud of his money, and a New York street fighter (as when he asked the other Senatorial candidates who actually passed all the bad laws they were excoriating), I can imagine that some of this goes over well with swing voters and white males  (even if subliminally). In some ironic and unexpected way, Bloomberg for all his Manhattan swagger may actually be the Democratic candidate that most appeals to the forgotten heartland once-Obama/sorta-with-Trump mentality.

Sad, as Trump would say. But, as Bloomberg would say, Tough, but that’s the way it is. 

The Punishment We Deserve?

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Well, that was unpleasant.

The Democratic presidential candidates’ debate on NBC Wednesday night was the circular firing squad we’ve been expecting. The entrance of Michael Bloomberg to the shootout turbocharged the animosity, inflicting casualties across the spectrum of party hopefuls.

The former New York City mayor took the brunt of his fellow contenders’ attacks but also gave as good as he got, parrying claims he’s trying to buy the presidency with reminders that he commits much of his fortune to philanthropy and the Democratic Party.

The only clarity to come out of the competition for the loudest voice in the room was that what is needed most for a Democratic victory in November – unity – is nowhere in sight.

Bernie Sanders’ socialist revolution fires up the young who love his message of free everything for life and don’t understand that he can’t deliver it, even if Democrats win the presidency and both houses of Congress. And most polls and pundits name him as the least likely contender to beat Donald Trump.

Moderates with an eye on what is achievable hold a huge advantage over Sanders, with well over 50% if you add together the support for Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden and now Bloomberg. It was disheartening to hear Amy and Pete trying to discredit each other’s centrist and sensible policies. Biden was fired up but as inarticulate as usual. Elizabeth Warren took the low road, attacking competitors with exaggerated accusations to the detriment of others on stage, and herself.

It’s said that people get the government they deserve. No one deserves another four years of Trump but as things are going, we may get the punishment we deserve.

Bickering Wonks

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There was too much bickering among the Democratic candidates tonight about details that were too wonkish. Worse, the biggest disappoint was that Trump was hardly mentioned in the fracas.

Amazingly, there was no mention of Trump firing multiple public civil servants who he could no longer “trust” as being loyal to him. And no mention of his pardoning criminals who were in jail because they had broken the public’s trust.

Attacking Trump on these two very public and headline actions, could have been used to accuse him of defining trust in his personal interest not the public interest. If a candidate had taken that clear and strong position, that person could have captured some major media coverage and defined that candidate as being above the fray.

Instead, too much time was spent attacking the wealthy, e.g. billionaires like Mike Bloomberg. Most people don’t have a visceral feeling about hating the super wealthy, because they don’t know them. They are too distant. They may not even like them, but unless they feel their pain directly coming from them, those attacks will barely move the dial.