The Peripatetic Preacher The Democratic Debates

The Peripatetic Preacher The Democratic Debates July 1, 2019

Along with some 16,000,000 of my fellow citizens, I watched the recent first round of Democratic debates among the invited 20 candidates seeking the nomination of their party to run against President Trump in the 2020 election next November. 10 of the contestants appeared each night and were asked questions by five commentators, all of who were connected with one or other of the networks of NBC. Since each evening was limited to 2 hours, it was rather easy to anticipate that no one candidate would be able to monopolize the proceedings, and at least to these ears no one candidate did. Of course, certain of them stood out by demonstrating sharp and pithy phraseology or superior prosecutorial skills or personality that bid to connect closely with certain members of the viewing public. Who “won” the debate is always in the eye of the beholder, but it seems clear that certain of the persons on the Miami stage lived to fight on in the exhausting contest we call the run to the White House. It is a run, all right, but it is in reality a two- year sprint, an extended marathon, that consumes quite literally billions of dollars, countless hours of press coverage, and vast oceans of pundit ink and virtual rivers of bytes.

One reader named the debates more pageant than real debate. 20 contestants strut their bona fides, answering questions in 45-second sound bites (few of them could actually limit their answers to such tiny bits of time), preening and crowing about what they have done and what they propose to do when they settle into the Oval Office. Before the telecast, I knew the names of all 20 of them, but I could not have picked some of them out in a lineup of politicians. The bigger names, those already in front of many polls by dint of their long service records or other sorts of public notoriety, took center stage: Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete on the first night, and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden on night two. Most pundits announced over and over the ones they imagined had triumphed in the struggle, though “triumph” is surely overstated given the format of the evenings. Senator Warren, many said, made it quite clear that “she had a plan” for whatever the world may throw at her as president, and she presented a few of those plans, as well as she could in the limited time allowed, both authoritatively and personably, a nice and effective combination. She certainly gained some support that evening.

Then there was Julian Castro, former cabinet member in the Obama administration, who spoke with passion and energy, claiming genuine administrative experience as former mayor of San Antonio, Texas. During the evening, he sharply criticized his fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, for being too general in his attack on the current administration’s immigration policy. Beto apparently responded in rather poor fashion to this sally, and faired none too well in the evening, many commented. Cory Booker, Senator from New Jersey, played well, according to many, employing a passionate and knowledgeable delivery to set himself somewhat apart from his colleagues on the stage. Three of them spoke a bit of Spanish to inject another aspect to their persons, and of course to play to the growing Latino electorate. Beto is fluent in the language, as his many turns on Univision and other Spanish-language media outlets have shown. Booker and Castro, who grew up speaking English but has honed his Spanish over the past years, both entered the Latino sweepstakes.

I was anxious to hear from Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who is the only candidate who has based his entire campaign on the immediate threat of global climate change. Any of you who have read any of my previous columns know that I resonate completely with Inslee on this matter, and I am grateful that he has entered the race in order to keep that vital question in the forefront of the discussions. This is especially important since the nincompoops in the Trump crowd, led by the nincompoop-in-chief, have done their level best to deny the obvious reality of climate change and to undo any of the efforts that the Obama administration attempted to do to vitiate the worst effects of that crisis. I pray daily that the issue of climate change will remain a constant in the election run up.

On night two, the most prominent orator was Kamala Harris, first-term senator from California and a former prosecutor. She made a telling hit on Joe Biden concerning the value of bussing for racial integration, reminding him that she, as a girl of color in Oakland, rode a bus to school each day from her predominantly black and relatively poor neighborhood to the formerly all-white schools across town. Bussing was her ticket to a better life, both educationally and socially, leading her to college and law school, and to become the Attorney General of California and now a US Senator. She came out of the evening probably better known and almost certainly better admired. Joe Biden, unfortunately, demonstrated that he was an old, white man, who knew his way around the politics of the past, but was perhaps not so in tune with the world of 2019. Bernie Sanders merely repeated what he has been saying for many years now: universal health care, forgiveness of all college loan debt, and brisk attacks on Wall Street and various other denizens of the leisure and wealthy classes. He was Bernie being Bernie, and he still has many admirers, especially among many younger voters.

Well, that somewhat summarizes the reactions to the pageant/debate, but why am I writing this essay in the first place? Surely not to summarize only? I do have several observations about what I saw happening on the Miami stage.

  1. I was hugely heartened to hear 20 of my fellow Americans who were risking their political lives to run for president against the man who is plainly and without argument the worst president in the history of our country. He simply must not be allowed to gain a second term! I can easily say that any one of the 20 would do far better at the job than the ill-prepared idiot who has been the president now for 2 1⁄2long and agonizing years. What a pleasure it was to listen to four hours of intelligent, measured people, presenting reasonable plans for the country and almost completely devoid of rancor and name-calling. Not once were we subjected to sophomoric putdowns or grade school invective that gushes from the mouth of the current occupant of the White House. As you can tell, I will be voting for the one of these 20 who survives the race against the terrible excuse for a president we currently endure. Complete sentences, backed up by facts and thought, are novel in America, as horrible as it is to have to write that sentence.
  2. I cannot say yet which one of the 20 I will get to cast my ballot for. She/he will be the one who can speak the truth to this abusive power we now face, and who can present clear ideas and programs that will help as many members of our society as possible. One commentator after the debates ended surmised that huge programs, popular with small portions of the electorate, as, for example, universal health care, would need far more nuance if such an idea were to be part of a candidate’s platform. What will happen to the almost 3 million insurance jobs lost? What about those who enjoy the insurance they currently have? Will all Americans be comfortable supporting with their money many of their poorer neighbors? We do this now with the program of Medicaid, but what would happen if that program became law for every American? And how will we pay for it all? Trump has already added over 8 trillion dollars to the national debt, despite his constant caterwauling about how the huge tax cut will pay for it all. It won’t, and no amount of bluster will make it so.
  1. The economy appears to be humming along, with very low unemployment and a rising stock market. The reality may be different, as many middle and lower class people take on two or three low-paying jobs to make ends meet, but statistics can be made to look good, this despite the reality that middle-class wages have actually fallen, in the light of inflation, over the past 40 years. Which of these candidates will be able to speak to those groups that made Trump president, those groups that the comfortable elite chose not to address or to listen to in 2016?
  2. And what of the religious factor? 80% of Christian evangelicals apparently still support the president, being convinced, for certain near-unfathomable reasons, that he is God’s man, the chosen one who has came to the kingdom “for such a time as this,” to recall a famous phrase from Esther. Can any of these 20 speak a word of serious religion? Surely Mayor Pete has demonstrated again and again his ability to speak about his faith, especially in light of his sexual orientation and his marriage to a man. I would urge the other candidates to listen carefully to how he articulates his faith with care and with genuine conviction. When Vice-President Pence went off again recently about his certainty that LGBTQ persons could never be acceptable in the eyes of God, Mayor Pete calmly replied that Pence would need to take his concerns up with God, since God was the one who made Pete as he is. Such a phrase would hardly convince all that Pete was the one for them, but his demeanor and character allows all who will to take seriously the faith of such a man.

    Vice President Micheal Pence poses for his official portrait at The White House, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. (Official White House Photo by D. Myles Cullen)
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We have a long 18 months ahead of us. I dearly wish that we could do this presidential election thing in very different ways, but it is unfortunately the way we currently do it. I urge each of us to keep alert to the process and to remain as fully informed as possible along the tortuous path we will need to follow. And I urge all of us to take God with us into the voting booth. No one should tell you how to vote, but your faith, carefully and thoughtfully weighed, should help you in the task. Buckle up, friends, and do not give up hope. There are alternatives to the chaos we are undergoing now, and among the 20 is the one who can lead us to a better country, a more inclusive country, a more recognizable and familiar America.


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