Last week’s debate between the top 10 Democrat presidential candidates in Houston, Texas, failed to change the dynamics of the race, while exposing the 2020 electoral dilemma created by the extreme left turn which the party’s policies have recently taken. The impractical and impossibly expensive socialist agenda being demanded by the party’s progressive activists, led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY), has pushed even relatively “moderate” Democrat candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, far to the left of the mainstream of American political thinking.
A strong momentum has now developed among Democrat activists behind extreme ideas that most mainstream American voters will not support. The party’s new agenda is now dominated by such radical concepts as “Medicare-for-all,” the “Green New Deal,” forgiveness of $1.5 trillion of accumulated student loan debt, coupled with free college tuition, unrestricted open border immigration, sharply increased taxation and confiscation of wealth, the elimination of fossil fuel energy sources, and the demonization of corporate capitalism.
Liberals are now openly condemning the American heritage, and claim that under a thin facade of democracy and human rights, the country’s success was really based upon slavery and racism. If the leading Democrat who emerges is forced to defend such radical ideas in order to win the party’s nomination, it is difficult to see how that candidate will be able to pivot back to the center to compete in the general election against President Trump.
The three-hour debate in Houston on Thursday night, September 12, hosted by CNN, was limited to the 10 candidates who were able to meet the requirements established by the Democrat National Committee. They had to demonstrate at least 2% voter support in recognized national and state polls, and a create a broad nationwide base of campaign contributors.
The debate itself did not do much to advance these issues or differentiate the candidates from one another. As was expected, the target of most of their criticism was the common political enemy, President Trump, with some leftover fire aimed at the current frontrunner, former Vice President Joe Biden. However, the two leading Democrat candidates competing for liberal voter support, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, continued to avoid any direct confrontation on the debate stage.
FIRST TIER, SECOND TIER AND ALSO RANS
When the debate was over, the race for the nomination was still dominated by the same three contenders. Biden leads with the support of 26.2% of Democrats nationwide, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, while Sanders and Warren are in a virtual tie for second, with about 17% each. Together, the top three are preferred by about 60% of the Democrat electorate, while the second tier of Democrat candidates, including California Senator Kamala Harris (6.2% support), South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (5%), Asian-American businessman Andrew Yang (3%), former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke (3%), and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker (2.6%), make up another 20% of the Democrat base. Yang is this election cycle’s leading non-traditional candidate. The other three have seen their popularity fade after attracting some initial media interest, but their continued visibility in the debates could enable them to stage a comeback.
The rest of the Democrat field, including Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, former Obama cabinet secretary Julian Castro, billionaire liberal activist Tom Steyer and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, are all polling under 2%. All are long-shots at this stage of the race, and most are expected to drop out by the time the primary voting starts next year.
The problem for Democrats is that, even this early in the race, their choices are very limited. While claiming to represent the thinking of the rising young millennial generation, all three of the Democrat frontrunners are over age 70.
BIDEN MAINTAINS HIS EARLY ADVANTAGES
Biden, who has shifted to the left while pretending to run as a relative moderate, has kept his lead in the polls despite some embarrassing stumbles, because the progressive vote is evenly split between Sanders and Warren. Biden’s eight years as Obama’s vice president has also enabled him to claim the support of most black Democrats, although how durable Biden’s black support will be if a formidable black candidate emerges is open to question.
Nevertheless, Biden’s strong black voter support will be an important advantage for him during the primaries, because blacks make up a majority of Democrat voters in many southern states and poor urban centers. The former vice president is also the sentimental favorite of most older Democrats who still identify with the party’s more traditional liberal policies which Biden promoted during his years in Senate.
Another problem for Democrats is that some of the most promising new faces in the race have been unable to gain much traction. Senator Harris, for example, seemed to break through in the first Democrat debate this summer, when she challenged Biden over his opposition to school busing for the purpose of desegregation 40 years ago. But since then, Harris has lost the support of many of her fellow liberal blacks because of her record as a tough crime-fighting California district attorney. She has also been compromised by her inconsistent position on progressive Democrats’ favorite issue during this election cycle, “Medicare-for-all.”
Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the field, is an Afghan war veteran running as a moderate, but he has also had trouble attracting sufficient black voter support because of civil rights abuse allegations against his South Bend police.
Senator Cory Booker was also a potentially attractive candidate, at least on paper. But as a black man from a privileged background who built a political career by deciding to live in the crime-ridden inner city, Booker seems to be too inauthentic to win over many liberal voters.
BETO O’ROURKE’S LAST HURRAH
Similarly, Congressman O’Rourke attracted lots of national media attention when he mounted a surprisingly strong challenge for Ted Cruz’s Texas Senate seat during the 2018 midterm election. O’Rourke narrowly lost to Cruz, and initial support for his presidential candidacy quickly evaporated after his fellow Democrats realized that his behavior and ideas were too quirky to command the respect of most mainstream voters.
After taking a hiatus, O’Rourke tried to revive his floundering campaign on the debate stage last week by making an outraged demand for a mandatory buyback of assault rifles in reaction to the mass shooting in his hometown of El Paso last month. While his outburst seemed to be politically contrived, it was the first sign of emotional vibrance that O’Rourke has shown since his failed campaign against Ted Cruz last year. But the condescending support shown by his fellow candidates later in the debate for his gun control proposal was a sure sign that they no longer see O’Rourke’s fading candidacy as a viable threat to their own campaigns.
Another novelty in the debate was the latest version of Andrew Yang’s quirky money giveaway proposal as a cure for future automation-driven unemployment. In his opening debate statement, Yang announced he would give a “freedom dividend” consisting of $1,000 monthly to 10 families for a year out of his campaign funds, to demonstrate how his promise to guarantee every American over the age of 18 a universal basic income would work if he is elected president.
Senator Klobuchar, the third woman on the debate stage last week, boasted that if she were the Democrat presidential candidate, her Minnesota background and relatively moderate positions would help Democrats win back the Rust Belt states which provided Trump with his margin of victory in 2016. She has positioned herself to inherit Biden’s moderate supporters, on the assumption that due to his age and ineptitude, his candidacy will eventually collapse.
Klobuchar told the debate audience that, “if you feel stuck in the middle of the extremes in our politics and you are tired of the noise and the nonsense, you’ve got a home with me, because I don’t want to be the president for half of America. I want to be the president for all of America.” But so far, the moderates have remained loyal to the former vice president, while Klobuchar’s candidacy has gone nowhere.
Another disappointment for Democrats has been the failure of Julian Castro, their only Hispanic presidential candidate and an outspoken advocate for open borders, to gain much support.
IS BIDEN MENTALLY COMPETENT?
Castro also did himself no favor in last week’s debate, when he asked Biden, “Are you forgetting what you just said?” which seemed to suggest that Biden is no longer mentally incompetent due to his advancing age.
Castro’s crude attempt to expose Biden’s mental incompetence was one of the few real emotional flashpoints during the three-hour debate. It prompted Buttigieg’s cynical comment that the use of such tactics “is why presidential debates are becoming unwatchable. This reminds everybody of what they cannot stand about Washington, scoring points against each other, poking at each other.”
But refusing to accept that criticism, Castro was quick to answer back, “Yeah, that’s called the Democratic primary election, Pete. That’s called an election.”
The long-expected confrontation between the two leading liberals vying for progressive support, Warren and Sanders, did not materialize in last week’s debate. While they did disagree on some policy details, their conversation stayed respectfully civil. Even though they still claim to be like-minded friends, most political observers still consider a sharper clash between Warren and Sanders to be inevitable as the field of viable candidates continues to narrow.
Democrat activists who had hoped that the debate would help winnow down the field of presidential candidates further, forcing some of the weaker ones to drop out, were disappointed. While Biden’s performance was more spirited and self-assured than in previous debates, he still showed a disturbing tendency to ramble and, at times, lapse into near-incoherence.
The debate also made it clear that if Biden does emerge as the Democrat nominee, he will have to spend a lot of time explaining his 30-year long voting record in Washington before he became Obama’s vice president. His main gaffe of the evening came in response to a question from a debate moderator about a statement Biden made in 1975 about school segregation: “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather. I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation, and I [don’t] feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago,” Biden had said at that time. Last week, Biden was asked whether he still felt the same way: “As you stand here tonight, what responsibility do you think that Americans need to take to repair the legacy of slavery in our country?”
Biden’s response was to treat the phenomenon of “institutional segregation in this country” primarily as an educational problem that should be addressed by tripling the amount of federal money spent on failing public schools, by increasing the annual salaries of all teachers to the $60,000 level, starting the school education of every child at the age of three, and by bringing social workers into their homes to teach parents “how to raise their children.”
BIDEN’S RECORD PLAYER GAFFE
Biden then added that children in poor schools also needed their parents at home to help them with the spoken word, by “making sure you have the record player on at night [to] make sure that kids hear words.”
Biden’s casual reference to “record player” audio technology, which has been obsolete for more than 30 years, left many Democrats aghast. It was yet another troubling indication of just how badly out of touch the Democrat presidential frontrunner is with the current realities of daily American life.
Cory Booker made that point in a CNN follow up interview after the debate. He “tends to go on sometimes,” Booker said about Biden. “At one point, he’s talking about people in communities like mine listening to record players. I don’t remember the last time I saw a record player.” Booker then added, “There are definitely moments when you’re listening to Joe Biden and you just wonder.”
While most commentators agreed that Biden was more aggressive and effective in response to criticism last week than in the previous two debates, he still seems to be almost as vulnerable and flawed a candidate as Hillary Clinton was four years ago
Conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt suggested that Biden’s latest gaffe is likely to do permanent damage to his credibility in the eyes of American voters. Hewitt suggested that it could become Biden’s political epitaph, much like Senator John Kerry’s damaging admission during his 2004 presidential campaign that “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” or then-President Gerald Ford’s befuddling statement during his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter that, “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”
Biden’s latest out-of-touch statement has forced him to confront the question of his advancing age and declining competence more openly. The day after last week’s debate, Biden promised a reporter that he would respond to those “concerns” by releasing his medical records and the results of his next physical before the first primary votes are cast.
WARREN STILL DEFERRING TO SANDERS ON MEDICARE-FOR-ALL
Last week’s debate was the first time that Biden and Warren had a chance to directly confront one another face-to-face in the current election cycle. While they did clash briefly over healthcare, Warren was satisfied to primarily defer to Sanders on that issue, and let him make a more aggressive case for Medicare-for-all, as she has done consistently since the start of the current campaign.
Sanders gave one of his typical debate performances, angrily condemning the corporate greed of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and blaming them for the high cost and the inadequacies of the American healthcare system.
Biden responded by effectively criticizing the “Medicare-for all” proposal as unaffordable and unnecessary for the bulk of Americans who are satisfied with the healthcare they already have. For those dissatisfied with their current healthcare coverage, Biden proposed reviving the idea of adding a government-run “public option” to the current private insurance plans offered on the current Obamacare marketplaces as far preferable to the Sanders proposal, which would force everyone off their current healthcare plan and require raising taxes on the middle class as well as the wealthy in order to pay for it.
Repeating the gist of the broken promise about Obamacare which haunted President Obama after it proved to be untrue, Biden said of “the 160 million people who like their healthcare now, they can keep it. If they don’t like it, they can leave.”
While Warren could not deny that the Medicare-for-all proposal would require some new taxes on the middle class, she did insist that most of the financial burden of the new healthcare system would on “those at the very top, the richest individuals and the biggest corporations, [who] are going to pay more,” while arguing that because of the sharp reduction in premiums and required out-of-pocket healthcare costs in the current system, overall, under Medicare-for-all, “middle class families are going to pay less.”
Amy Klobuchar also blasted the Warren-Sanders Medicare-for-all proposal for being too radical. She said, “When it comes to our healthcare and when it comes to our premiums, I go with the doctor’s creed, which is, do no harm. While Bernie wrote the [Medicare-for-all] bill, I read the bill. And on page eight of the bill it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. And that means that 149 million Americans will no longer be able to have their current insurance. I don’t think that’s a bold idea. I think it’s a bad idea.”
Also entering the debate over healthcare on Biden’s side was Pete Buttigieg, who said he was against forcing a change on the American people against their will. “The problem, Senator Sanders, with that. . . bill that you wrote, and that Senator Warren backs, is that it doesn’t trust the American people.” Turning to the debate audience, Buttigieg added, “I trust you to choose what makes the most sense for you. Not my way or the highway.”
The South Bend mayor also noted the practical political problem which faces both the Biden and Sanders-Warren healthcare proposals: “Neither a public option nor Medicare-for-all seems very likely to pass through a Republican-controlled Senate, [and there] won’t even be a discussion if Trump is reelected.”
DEFENDING OBAMA’S LEGACY
The overall tenor of last week’s debate discussion was noticeably less critical of President’s Obama’s legacy healthcare program than in the previous debates. Party leaders had made it clear to all the presidential candidates that any further effort on their part to build up their liberal proposals at the expense of Obama’s greatest legislative achievement would not be greeted kindly.
For example, when Warren called for the replacement of Obamacare with Medicare-for-all, she was careful to praise Obama’s historic accomplishment in getting the measure passed, while arguing at the same time that it could still be improved upon. During the rest of the debate, Warren repeatedly defended Medicare-for-all, but was willing to leave it up to Sanders to defend the plan when its high cost came under sharp attack from Biden.
Sanders and Biden also clashed over their positions at the start of the Iraq War in 2003, when both men were in the Senate. Biden acknowledged that Sanders had been right not to trust then-President George W. Bush and in voting against the bill which Biden had supported, giving Bush authorization to launch the invasion. However, Biden was hard-pressed to explain how he had learned the necessary lessons from his mistake in supporting the Iraq invasion 16 years ago, and would apply those lessons to the current US military involvement in Afghanistan.
WARREN PURSUING A SUCCESSFUL STRATEGY
Senator Warren, not known for her foreign policy expertise, also weighed in on the foreign intervention question by referring to her visit to Afghanistan some years ago with the late Senator John McCain while both were serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee. She then deftly recast the Afghanistan issue in highly personal terms. “I have three older brothers who all served in the military,” Warren said. “I understand firsthand the kind of commitment they have made. They will do anything we ask them to do. But we cannot ask them to solve problems that they alone cannot solve.”
Even though the response dodged giving a clear answer to the underlying question about what the US should do now about the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, it did demonstrate how she cares about the issue, even if she doesn’t know how go about to solving it.
The response showed how Warren was able to cleverly sidestep difficult debate questions that she didn’t want to directly answer, and also demonstrated how much she has improved as a candidate since this campaign began. Even though she was not at the center of the policy discussions through most of the debate, most commentators agree that she emerged at the end stronger than any of her other competitors on the stage. She also reinforced her carefully constructed image as the only candidate with a well-thought out plan to solve most of the country’s problems.
Invariably, Warren’s plans involve expanding the role of the federal government and increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for them. While the level of liberal support for Sanders in the polls has remained stagnant, Warren’s plans have helped her build her base of support by polishing her image as the best prepared of the liberal candidates. She has also carefully positioned herself to take over the support of the other liberals who will inevitably be forced to drop out of the race in the months ahead.
A SHARP CONTRAST WITH TRUMP
Warren has established herself as a tough and tenacious opponent who is perfectly capable of standing up to more personal attacks that she can expect from Donald Trump as her position in the race for the Democrat nomination improves. Her thoroughly researched policy papers stand in sharp contrast to Trump’s often overly simplistic populist proposals. In her own way, Warren’s condemnations of “multinational corporations” and their corrupt chief executives has been almost as effective in identifying a set of super-rich villains for American voters to blame as Trump has been by attacking the “fake news” media and the members of the entrenched “deep state” who have been plotting to undermine his presidency since the night he won the 2016 election.
That is why more Democrat political analysts are predicting that Warren is most likely to be the liberal candidate to overtake Biden’s lead and emerge as her party’s 2020 nominee.
Warren does remain vulnerable to criticism based upon her well-documented personal history of making false claims to a Native American heritage, as well as her previous support for Republican policy positions. But by focusing on the issues rather than personalities in her current campaign, the candidate that Trump likes to publicly ridicule as “Pocahontas” has managed to slowly rebuild the credibility of her candidacy.
Meanwhile, the short-term goals of Warren’s campaign seem to be shoring up her still-weak support among lower income and minority voters, who so far have largely been gravitating to the Biden campaign, almost by default.
THE “TRUMP EFFECT” ON AMERICAN POLITICS
New York Times commentator Maureen Dowd has attributed the lackluster performances in the Democrat presidential debates to the long-term influence of Donald Trump, which has “fundamentally altered the way we experience politics.” Dowd suggests that since taking office, Trump has been “rewiring the [political] game in some permanent way.”
Dowd lamented that though “there were a lot of good politicians on the debate stage in Houston. . . the night rang hollow as they clung to the old conventions, the overcoached performances, the canned lines, the pandering, the well-worn childhood anecdotes. . . Tactics superseded passion and vision.”
Dowd contrasted the often boring and seemingly “endless” candidate debate in Houston to the electricity that Trump’s speech generated at a simultaneous House Republican retreat in Baltimore. As Trump was making his familiar accusations about Democrat intentions, the candidates on the debate stage were confirming them, point by point.
Dowd wrote, “The president said, ‘Democrats want to confiscate guns from law-abiding Americans,’ and Beto O’Rourke said, ‘Yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.’ The president said the Democrats would impose ‘crippling taxes,’ and Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren proposed all their free stuff that would require tax hikes.”
At the end of the evening, Dowd was left frustrated because, despite all of the political talent on the Houston stage, none of those candidates was able to score a clear victory, and increasingly fearful that if the stagnation which has gripped Democrat national politics continues, it could enable Trump to win re-election next year.
VOTERS CAN SEE TRUMP’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS
Most voters realize that Trump’s economic record has disproved liberal Democrat claims during the debate that free market capitalism has betrayed the American middle class, and must be replaced by the confiscation of private wealth and a radical expansion of federal government control over every aspect of our lives. Americans can also see for themselves the dramatic progress which has resulted from Trump’s tax cutting and government deregulatory policies, for which Democrats refuse to give him any credit.
This includes the continued expansion of the American work force, a 3.7% national unemployment rate – the lowest peacetime figure in 50 years. The combination of faster rising wages combined with low inflation has resulted in a rising standard of living for millions of Americans, especially minority black and Hispanic workers who were mostly left out of previous economic recoveries. The Democrats in Houston also tried to evade the fact that the increased federal regulations and higher taxes they are proposing would quickly end this burst of Trump-era prosperity and would put America on the same road to the long-term economic stagnation now confronting the socialist democracies of Western Europe.
Judging from their debate positions, Democratic candidates remain deep in denial of the wishes of the vast majority of the American people. Americans do not want to be forced to trade in their SUVs for overpriced electric vehicles, or give up cheap and reliable domestic fossil fuel energy in exchange for far more expensive green energy alternatives. Most Americans also do not want hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to be free to cross the border from Mexico any time they want, or be forced to pay for their healthcare and give them US citizenship, including the right to vote. Nor are most Americans willing to pay more than a trillion dollars in reparations to the black descendants of pre-Civil War slaves.
SUPPORT FOR MEDICARE-FOR-ALL WEAKENING
Most of the Americans who now get healthcare through their employers’ private insurance plans do not want to be forced to give it up in exchange for the vague promises of “Medicare-for-all.” While “Medicare-for-all” was an attractive concept when Bernie Sanders first proposed it during his 2016 presidential campaign, once they understand its consequences, most Americans no longer support the proposal.
A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 58 percent of Americans oppose a healthcare policy plan that would force them to give up the private insurance option. Only 37 percent favored getting rid of all private health insurance. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Americans are saying that they would oppose “Medicare-for-all” if it meant raising their taxes (37 percent), threatening the current Medicare program (32 percent), or leading to delays in their receiving treatment (26 percent) – all of which appear to be inevitable if Medicare-for-all were to be adopted.
Most Americans also realize that there is no reasonable way to pay the cost of Sanders’ original Medicare-for-all plan, an estimated $30 trillion, without bankrupting the country.
DEMOCRATS PUSHING UNPOPULAR IDEAS
Most also do not want Democrats to make radical changes in the American system of government by doing away with the constitutional safeguards against the tyranny of the majority embodied in the Electoral College system, the rules of the Senate, the political independence of the federal judiciary and the liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and a citizen’s right to bear arms. Most American still take pride in their country, believe in the American dream and American exceptionalism, and trust the forces of law and order.
While the Democrat candidates were united in condemning Trump for conducting foreign policy and trade wars via tweet, that is where their agreement ended. There was also no consensus among the Democrats on how to resolve the old conflict between the interests of protectionism vs. free trade, and more specifically, on whether to wind down Trump’s current tariff war with China, or how best to renegotiate other unfair foreign trade agreements which have hurt US competitiveness in the global economic marketplace.
The proposals by Sanders, Warren and Harris to institute a total ban on new domestic oil and gas fracking exploration, in the name of fighting climate change, also seemed to be politically counterproductive. They are sure to hurt all liberal Democrat candidates next year in their efforts to become more competitive in key states like Texas and Pennsylvania, whose economies have become heavily dependent on the continued growth of their booming energy industries.
Meanwhile, many progressive Democrats and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media are going in the opposite direction. They are increasingly intolerant of anyone who dares to resist their amoral value system. They insist on condemning overt expressions of patriotism and many traditional religious beliefs as bigotry, while increasingly turning a blind eye to overt left-wing acts of intimidation, bullying and intellectual censorship.
WHY SOME DEMOCRAT STRATEGISTS ARE WORRIED ABOUT 2020
While many mainstream voters disapprove of Trump’s flamboyant, self-promoting personal style, most also believe that his policies have improved the country’s economy and that he is doing his best, in the face of bitterly partisan opposition, to keep the promises he made to the American people during the 2016 campaign. Most Americans also now know that Trump was falsely accused of conspiring with the Russians to fix the 2016 election, and that his “America First” policies have largely worked to reduce the threat of war and to rebuild American power and prestige around the world.
For many American voters, last week’s Democratic debate just confirmed the impression that Trump’s main political opponents are out of touch with today’s economic realities and in total denial over Trump’s real accomplishments, which they seem determined to roll back.
Veteran Democrat strategists, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are well aware of the political danger inherent in the effort by the party’s progressive activists to drive its agenda and candidates to the extreme left, far beyond the ideological comfort range of many independent and moderate American voters.
Democrats who have allowed themselves to be blinded by their hatred for Donald Trump and all that he stands for appear to be in growing danger of repeating the fatal mistake they made in 2016 of underestimating President Trump. His political instincts, combined with his proven ability to appeal directly to alienated voters, resulted in that upset victory, and because many Democrats still can’t bring themselves to accept it, Trump could do it to them again next year.