Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Party Inching Rightward

Charlie Pierce made two valid points about Tuesday's Democratic presidential debate. The one which he himself would concede is the less significant is

.... the Warren-Sanders business is going to be what people take away from Tuesday night. I have no idea what was said during the famous conversation about whether a woman can be elected president. But the response from the Sanders supporters, especially on the electric Twitter machine, has been so hysterically over the top—Responding with snake emojis? That’s only the oldest misogynistic smear of all time, going all the way back to Genesis.—that it does make me wonder whether or not there’s something in that campaign that attracts the Democratic equivalent of the incel boys. I hope it stops soon, but I doubt that it will.

If the Sanders people want to go down in history as the campaign that kneecapped two talented, accomplished women, that’s their decision. I thought Warren recovered nicely with her bit about how she and Klobuchar were the only two people on the stage who’d never lost an election. Other than that, the debate was little more than a reminder that starting this process off in Iowa is no way to elect a president of this whole country. That’s absurd.

It's Thursday, the response still is over the top and increasingly brings into question the tolerance of Twitter Sanders supporters, Warren recovered nicely, and this is no way to run an airline- or an election. More critically, however, was that during the debate

Joe Biden was punished with the soft cushions and the comfy chair. Nobody laid a glove on him after Sanders jibed him about his Iraq War vote early on. In the run-up to the debate, it was widely believed that Sanders would press Biden on his past support for various Simpson-Bowlesian notions for “reforming” Social Security, while Warren seemed ready to tee him up (again) on the noxious bankruptcy bill that Biden wrote.

Both of these are very big fish in very small barrels, and both of these continued un-shot through the evening’s festivities while Pete Buttigieg soft-shoed his way through every discussion and Amy Klobuchar decided this was the time to be a deficit scold.

These are three critical points- about the financial industry (bankruptcy bill), Social Security, and the deficit- which put a lie to the quaint and comforting notion that Bernard's two presidential campaigns have nudged the discussion among national Democrats leftward.

Senator Warren inexplicably said nothing about the bankruptcy bill, though it not only clearly separates her from Biden, but also demonstrates her economically progressive bonafides and her willingness- nay, eagerness- to take on the powerful in a way a President Sanders is unlikely to do.

For his part, Sanders, who has an excellent record on Social Security, joined Warren in remaining completely mum about the earned benefits program.  Biden long has been cool toward Social Security, including supporting: in the 1980s freezing benefits freezing Social Security and all federal spending in 1994; supporting cutting the program as part of President Obama's Grand Bargain effort in 2011; and in 2018 means-testing benefits in order to "save" the program. In 2008 he boasted that he resisted political advisers, who told him to avoid the issue because it is the "third rail" of American politics.

Yet, neither Sanders (nor Warren) even mentioned Social Security. If not a glaring omission, it was a crucial omission.

But while Biden's support for a modest Social Security program was motivated in part by his concern about deficits and the federal budget, even he did not become the "deficit scold" in the Des Moines debate. Instead, it was Amy Klobuchar who bragged

I am the one person up here who has on her website in her plan a plan to actually start taking on the deficit, by taking part of that money from that corporate tax cut that they put in there and putting it in a fund to pay back the deficit.

Or it could be used to expand accessibility to health care, fight climate change, provide free pre-kindergarten programs, rebuild dangerous bridges and expand public transit, or (insert your own favorite long-neglected need).

Buttigieg then maintained

And my plan is paid for. Look, our party should no longer hesitate to talk about the issue of the debt and the deficit. Now, we've got a dramatically better track record on it than Republicans do. In my lifetime, it's almost invariably Republican presidents who have added to the deficit, a trillion dollars under this president. And it's why everything I've put forward — from Medicare for all who want it to the historic investments we're going to make in infrastructure to dealing with climate change — is fully paid for.

The Democratic Party never has hesitated to talk about the debt, even after Walter Mondale tried it in 1984 and got shellacked by Ronald Reagan, nor when President Clinton balanced the federal budget, nor when President Obama boasted that he had changed the trajectory and set the nation on the way to a balanced budget. Republican presidents explode the federal deficit to pay for their favorite programs (especially defense) and get rewarded at the polls.

In 2016, big-government Trump challenged for the GOP presidential nomination traditional Republicans, who at least posed as "fiscal conservatives" opposed to big government spending and deficits. We know what happened next.

Very few Americans care about the debt or deficits. It's something they like to tell themselves and pollsters they care about (like PBS in the past) right before they vote for whatever candidate wants to blow up the federal budget.  We care about where the money goes- but we all want the money to go somewhere.

One of those priorities is Social Security, which no one wanted to talk about Tuesday night.  And no one challenged Klobuchar and Buttigieg, pointing out that "but the deficit!" is merely something conservatives invoke to cut spending on social services and other needs of Americans.  Coupled with avoidance of the issue of financial reform (the obvious argument for Warren's candidacy), this is a Party which largely has not been driven left by Bernard Sanders' influence, but bafflingly in the opposite direction.

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