The Democratic Debate That Wasn’t

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W.J. Astore

Last night witnessed another scrum among the top twelve Democratic challengers.  It wasn’t really a debate since each candidate only had a minute or two to respond to questions.  I’ve seen headlines describing the debate as “the moderates versus the progressives,” with the usual scorecards about which candidates “won” and “lost,” but I don’t think any candidate “won.”  And it was the American people who clearly lost.

First, what was missing.  There was no serious discussion of U.S. foreign policy, of America’s military-industrial complex and colossal “defense” budgets, or of climate change.  The situation in Syria was discussed in the context of President Trump’s alleged betrayal of the Kurds, but that was all.  There was no discussion about nuclear weapons and their proliferation (and America’s decision to “modernize” our arsenal at a cost of at least a trillion dollars).  There was no discussion of America’s overseas empire of 800 military bases.  There was no serious discussion about ending the Afghan War, or the enormous cost of America’s wars since 9/11.

So, what was discussed?  Trump’s impeachment, of course.  Medicare for all versus “choice.”  A woman’s right to control her own body (obviously a very important subject).  How and whether to change the Supreme Court.  Taxes.  Guns.  Tech monopolies.  Opioid abuse and holding drug companies responsible for the same.  Even Ellen’s friendship with George W. Bush.

CNN and the New York Times sponsored the debate, hence they controlled the questions.  The initial goal seemed to be to get Elizabeth Warren to admit she’d have to raise taxes to pay for her Medicare plan.  She largely ducked the issue, insisting the rich and corporations would pay for it.  Another question raised the specter of Bernie Sanders’s health after his recent heart attack, and also of Joe Biden’s age, i.e. that if he’s elected, he’ll turn 80 while he’s in office.  It was that kind of “debate.”

Speaking of Joe Biden, he didn’t perform well in this debate.  He often misspoke and his answers drifted off course.  I can see why the smart money is gravitating toward Elizabeth Warren.

Another person who suffered from the debate format was Tulsi Gabbard.  Few questions were directed her way, and she was often ignored or cut off as she tried to speak.  Her attempt to challenge Elizabeth Warren on her qualifications to be commander-in-chief went unanswered as CNN cut to commercials.  Nice try, Tulsi, but CNN was having none of that.

With respect to Trump and Syria, only Tulsi Gabbard attempted to explain the long history of U.S. involvement in the area, which was, in essence, a regime-change war directed against Bashar al-Assad.  (Recall that President Obama in 2015 said that Assad had to go.)  But again CNN was having none of that, and Tulsi’s point was left hanging as other candidates babbled about not serving the agenda of Vladimir Putin.

And there you have it: yet another debate from which the American empire and the military-industrial complex emerged as the clear victors.

Trump’s Impeachment

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Happier days for Trump

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump, it now seems clear, pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden.  He exerted this pressure by withholding military aid to Ukraine approved by Congress, and by calling Ukraine’s president and asking him for a “favor,” the said favor being the investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.  The White House apparently acted to “lock down” transcripts of the phone call, but a whistleblower came forward backed by an inspector general.

And my first reaction was: Can Trump be impeached for stupidity?

Joe Biden is a weak candidate for the presidency.  It’s questionable whether he’ll win the nomination next year.  Why bother going after him in such an egregiously illegal way when Biden is very likely to implode as a candidate on his own?

I can’t answer that question, but I can guess.  Trump, to put it mildly, has never been a public servant, and I include his term as president in this statement.  Trump is always about himself; the world revolves around him, or so he thinks.  He has no conception of following laws simply because he believes he is above them.  Furthermore, Biden may be a weak rival, but rival he is nonetheless.  And Trump, operating from his experience in the take-no-prisoners world of New York real estate, casino management, and similar escapades, knows what to do with a rival: you search for any edge you can get, including pressuring those who are dependent on you to dig up dirt on said rival.

Put bluntly, in this case Trump simply did what he regularly does.  The only difference is that a whistleblower wouldn’t play the game of “nothing to see here, move along.”

If only Trump had done what he promised as a candidate.  If only he’d acted to drain the swamp; if only he’d worked hard to end America’s forever wars; if only he’d truly put America first by rebuilding our country’s infrastructure and cutting taxes for workers.  Instead, he hired the swamp; he refueled those forever wars; he abandoned infrastructure along with meaningful tax cuts for workers.

Trump lacks integrity.  In short, he’s just another self-interested politician.  More than this, however, is Trump’s complete lack of respect for the law.  It’s time for him to go.

Update (9/27/19)

A few comments in passing:

1. Investigating Trump, on credible charges, is not an example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
2. Saying that Biden is also corrupt, or that Democrats are corrupt, in no way exonerates Trump. For my money, let’s prosecute all corruption everywhere.
3. Often, the cover-up is worse than the crime. That may well be the case here.
4. Trump, as is his wont, is making matters worse, suggesting the whistleblower’s sources acted like spies and suggesting execution would be appropriate. (Please don’t say he was vague; we all know what he meant.)
5. Readers of this blog know that I voted third party in 2016. If you examine my articles, you’ll find I’m critical of both Democrats and Republicans.
6. Justice should not be partisan, even as it’s inevitably influenced by it.
7. I don’t care if the Republican-controlled Senate chooses not to convict Trump. Our lawmakers will have to go on the record, as they should, History will render the final verdict.
8. I don’t know if impeachment will make Trump stronger or weaker, and I don’t care. What it will do, assuming the evidence is sufficient, is to make justice in America stronger. No man should be above the law.

Joe Biden: Clueless and Incoherent

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Biden: Nonsense or No Sense?  (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

W.J. Astore

There was another Democratic debate this week, and I have to admit I missed it.  I’ve been checking the highlights (or lowlights, if you prefer), and Joe Biden, as usual, figures prominently.

First, here’s his stunningly paternalistic, clueless, and incoherent response to a question on the legacies of slavery, segregation, and racial discrimination:

Well, they have to deal with the — look, there’s institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure we are in a position where — look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take the very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the $60,000 level.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home. We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are — I’m married to a teacher, my deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. Make sure that every single child does, does in fact, have 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds go to school. Not day care, school.

We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t want — they don’t know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the phone — make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — a very poor background — will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

Make sure you have the record player on at night?

How difficult is it, really, to admit to the legacy of slavery in this country?  But Biden would rather jumble a lot of words together, perhaps based on a few ideas that he memorized poorly.  So he mentions segregation and the practice of banks redlining predominately black/minority neighborhoods and denying them loans (which he doesn’t explain), then he pivots to education and social workers while suggesting the solution to helping minority kids to learn is for them to hear more words coming from record players and phones at night.

And Democrats think this man is going to defeat Donald Trump in 2020?

Second, Joe Biden was attacking Bernie Sanders on the cost of Medicare for All.  When Sanders accurately noted that Americans pay twice as much per capita for health care as Canadians do under their national health care system, Biden’s response was three words: “This is America.”

So apparently it’s the American way to pay twice as much as other countries for equivalent health care.  It’s the American way to be denied coverage, to pay large co-pays and deductibles, and to go into bankruptcy because of a serious medical condition.

“This is America.”  I feel better already!

Not so incredibly, the Democratic establishment would rather lose to Trump with a candidate like Biden than win with a candidate like Bernie.  And so Biden’s non-sequiturs, his gaffes, his prejudices, and indeed his stunning incoherence are shrugged off as “That’s Biden being Biden.”

I may not have watched last week’s debate, but I have a strong sense of who won: Donald Trump.

The Dream Democratic Ticket for 2020

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Clockwise from left: Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren.  Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Sergio Flores/Getty Images, Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images.

W.J. Astore

Now that Joe Biden is officially in the race, the dream Democratic ticket has emerged: Biden and Kamala Harris.

By “dream,” I don’t mean the Progressive dream.  I don’t mean the dream of working-class voters who are hurting.  I don’t mean the dream of Americans who are tired of never-ending wars that enfeeble our economy (and kill lots of people, mainly foreigners).  Those “dream” candidates are true Progressives like Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard.  A Sanders/Gabbard ticket would truly shake things up, which is why it’s not going to happen, as much as I’d like to see it.

No — the corporate-loving DNC wants to preserve the status quo, wants to feed the military-industrial complex, wants big funding from Wall Street, and therefore favors status quo candidates like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

A likely scenario in 2020: Bernie Sanders wins the most votes and delegates, but Joe Biden emerges as a close second.  With all the other candidates (roughly 20 now) splitting the vote, no candidate has enough delegates to win in the first round at the national convention.  So the super-delegates (remember them?), the corporate tools, spring into action in the second and subsequent rounds of voting and throw their support to the “sensible, electable” candidate, in this case Biden.  But of course they can’t let an old white guy represent the “new” Democratic Party, and that’s where Kamala Harris comes in.  She’s black!  And a woman!  And makes noises that sound slightly progressive.  The perfect balanced ticket!  Shut up and color, liberals and Progressives.

Of course, if gaffe-prone Biden implodes, a distinct possibility, there are other safe white guys waiting in the wings to headline the ticket.  Mayor Pete?  Beto O’Rourke?

It’s all so sadly predictable.  And so too is Biden’s loss to Trump in 2020.

P.S.  To state the obvious, I hope I’m wrong about this.

Democratic Candidates for President in 2020

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Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders: Change We Can Believe In

W.J. Astore

Yes, it’s much too early, but I count at least fourteen Democratic candidates for president in the 2020 election.  Here are a few impressionistic words on each of the candidates.

The True Progressives

1.  Bernie Sanders: Bernie is principled, sincere, honest, and dedicated to helping working people.  Yes, he’s a “Democratic socialist,” which is scary to the mainstream media.  The establishment of the Democratic Party is against him.  Advantage, Bernie.

2.  Elizabeth Warren: She identifies as a “capitalist,” but she’s proven she’s willing to take on Wall Street, the big banks, and other special interests.  She’s intelligent, sharp, and committed.  Her weakness: a lack of charisma and the whole “Pocahontas” angle, i.e. her identifying as Native American on past occasions.

3.  Tulsi Gabbard: A military veteran who’s strongly against regime-change wars, a vocal critic of the military-industrial complex, Tulsi has demonstrated poise, thoughtfulness, and coolness under pressure.  The DNC and media are against her because she’s independent-minded and refuses to bow down before special interests.  A dark horse candidate who may catch fire.  (I’m so excited I’m mixing metaphors.)

The Usual Suspects (Milquetoast Centrists)

1. Cory Booker: A water-bearer for Big Pharma, Booker has a pleasant demeanor but takes few chances.

2.  Kamala Harris: A former prosecutor, Harris seems to love prisons more than schools.

3.  Kirsten Gillibrand: Rumor has it she asked her friends on Wall Street whether it was OK for her to run.  They apparently said “yes,” so she announced her formal candidacy today.

4.  Amy Klobuchar: Already with a sad reputation for abusing her staff and making ill-judged jokes about it, Klobuchar is an uninspiring centrist.

5.  Beto O’Rourke: A millionaire who married a woman who will apparently inherit billions, Beto showed up in Iowa speaking in platitudes about the wonders of democracy in the USA.  His only firm principle is that he believes he deserves to be in the race, perhaps because he looks a little like a Kennedy if you squint really hard.

The Governors

1.  John Hickenlooper: A governor from Colorado, Hickenlooper made his money by opening a micro-brewery.  At a campaign appearance in Iowa, somebody broke a glass, and he helped to clean it up.  Though he was afraid to say he was a “capitalist” on TV, Hickenlooper may have some potential.

2.  Jay Inslee: Governor of Washington State, he’s made fighting climate change the central issue of his campaign.  He’s got one of the big issues right, so advantage to Inslee.

Wild Cards and Also-Rans

1.  Andrew Yang: A former venture capitalist and unconventional thinker, Yang has caught people’s attention by talking about a guaranteed income for all.  A possible anti-Trump in the sense he’s a successful financier with brains and heart.

2.  Pete Buttigieg: A gay mayor who’s also a veteran, Buttigieg got some air time recently by referring to Trump as a “porn president.”  Comes across like a young Mr. Rogers.

3.  Julian Castro: Formerly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama.  And that’s all I know.

4.  John Delaney: I just saw his name today.  The end.

The Ultimate Centrist and Establishment Man

1. Joe Biden: Hasn’t yet announced, but it looks like he will.  The presumed front-runner based on name recognition and his loyal service as Obama’s VP for eight years.  Will have the full support of the mainstream media, the DNC, and the Washington establishment.  A decent-enough man, Biden is effectively a moderate Republican.

Bracing Views, in all its power, fully supports Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, real progressives who want to effect real change.

Which candidates do you like, readers?  And which ones don’t you like?  Look forward to your comments!

Update (3/19/19): Apparently two more candidates are waiting in the wings: Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum.  Both are candidates of color who recently ran close but unsuccessful races in Georgia and Florida.  Perhaps not presidential material (due to lack of experience on the national stage), they may emerge as strong candidates for a VP slot.

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Training Wheels: The Fatal Flaw in U.S. Foreign Policy

Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy "experts"
Put them on? Take them off? The dilemma of US foreign policy “experts”

W.J. Astore

You read it here first: the fatal flaw in U.S. foreign policy is training wheels.  Yes, those supplemental wheels you add to your child’s bike when she’s first trying to learn how to balance herself as she pedals.

How so?  Listen closely to America’s leaders as they talk about helping Iraqis, Afghans, and other peoples.  A common expression they use is training wheels, which they visualize themselves as affixing to or removing from the Iraqi or Afghan governmental bike.  Because the idea of democracy is apparently so new and novel to foreign peoples, and because these foreigners basically act like so many children when it comes to governing themselves equitably, the U.S. must treat them like so many unskilled and tippy children on bikes.  We must affix training wheels to their bikes of state, and at the proper moment – a moment that only American adults can determine – those training wheels must then be removed.

Sounds simple – or is it?

Some examples suggest it’s not so simple.   In January 2004, President George W. Bush told his fellow Republicans that Iraqis were ready to “take the training wheels off” and assume some responsibility for their own self-government.  Yet a decade later in June 2014, retired General Michael Hayden, formerly head of the NSA and CIA, claimed that America “took the training wheels off the new Iraqi government far too early,” and by “too early” Hayden meant 2011, not seven years earlier in 2004.

Another American “adult” in the room, retired General Anthony Zinni, formerly commander of US Central Command, disagreed with Hayden, saying in December 2014 that those training wheels were still very much on in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, and that it was now high time for us to take them off.   That may have surprised Vice President Joe Biden, who said back in November 2010 that it was time for Afghans to remove their governmental training wheels, and if they didn’t, “Daddy” would do it for them.

In fact, those were Biden’s exact words on Larry King Live:  “Daddy is going to start to take the training wheels off … next July [2011], so you [Afghan leaders had] better practice riding.”  That admonition from their American “Daddy” in 2010 has failed over the last half-decade to inspire Afghan leaders to pedal smartly for American-style democracy.

And there’s the rub.  You don’t win foreign peoples to your side by treating them like so many unskilled and tippy children.  You don’t condescend to them by comparing their efforts to children trying to learn to ride a bike for the first time.  And you certainly don’t shake a finger at them that “Daddy” has lost patience and is going to remove the training wheels, whether they’re ready or not.

So, how do Americans respond when their Iraqi or Afghan “children” get angry at “Daddy” for messing with their training wheels?  Whether oblivious or indifferent to their own condescension, Americans respond by treating their foreign “children” as ingrates.  “Ingratitude, the vilest weed that grows,” to cite Eugene O’Neill’s play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, generates anger – and violence.

Dammit, why can’t these foreign “kids” learn to ride their democratic bikes?  Time to cut their allowance (in this case, American aid).  Or perhaps it’s even time for a good ass whooping with Daddy’s belt (in this case, drones firing Hellfire missiles).

Those foreign ingrates!  We gave them everything — lots of money, lots of aid, American troops and advisers, even “training wheels” for their bikes of democracy — and they still despise us.  Why?

I’ll tell you why.  They don’t hate us for our freedoms, as former President George W. Bush once claimed.  But they may very well despise us for our training wheels – and for all the smugness and paternalism and condescension they represent.

What Americans Value

There's no shortage of tanks in the USA
There’s no shortage of tanks in the USA

W.J. Astore

A sentiment attributed to Vice President Joe Biden is, Show me what’s in your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.  These words resonate with me whenever I consider the yearly budget for the Department of Defense (DoD), Homeland Security, the Department of Energy (which handles nuclear weapons), and the various intelligence agencies (roughly 17; that’s why they form a community).

When you add up what we spend on defense, homeland security, “overseas contingency operations” (wars), nuclear weapons, and intelligence and surveillance operations, the sum approaches $750 billion dollars each and every year, consuming more than two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary spending.

Here are some figures for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY15):

Defense: “Base” budget of $496 billion

Afghan War (not part of “defense”): $85 billion

VA: $65 billion

Homeland Security: $38 billion

Nuclear Weapons: $12 billion

FBI and Cyber Security (part of Justice Department budget): $18 billion

Total: $714 billion

Some of the budget of the State Department and for foreign aid supports weapons and training (“foreign military sales”), bringing us to roughly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, each and every year, on the military, intelligence, security, weapons, and wars.

How much do we spend at the federal level on education, interior, and transportation?  Roughly $95 billion.

When a government spends almost eight times as much on its military, security, wars, weapons, and the like as it does on educating its youth, fixing its roads and bridges and related infrastructure, and maintaining its national parks and land, is there any question what that country ultimately values?

Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  Sobering words. Sobering — and scary.