By Robert A. Vella
Last night, CNN moderated part-2 of the second Democratic Party presidential debate. Although the format was the same as part-1 the previous evening, that’s where the similarities end. This debate was a rough-and-tumble affair that reminded me of the old Roller Derby matches where teams of roller skaters in padded uniforms would jockey for position around a hardwood rink by knocking opponents off the track using any and all means. In a word, this debate was cutthroat.
To even a longtime observer like myself, who is accustomed to the ruthlessness and demagoguery of politics, this debate was an embarrassing spectacle. Adding insult to injury, the CNN moderators seemed to relish every opportunity to encourage petty exchanges between the candidates. Whereas part-1 was marked by honest disagreement over policy issues, part-2 was dominated by personal attacks, mischaracterizations, and misrepresentations of opponents’ political records. Some of the candidates were worse offenders than others (more on that later), but this debate as a whole provides an illustrative example of what has gone wrong in American politics. In a perverse sort of way, the Democratic candidate who survives such frays will be better prepared to face a much more nastier Donald Trump next year; however, it certainly doesn’t serve the nation well by any stretch of the imagination.
There was one centrist on stage (former vice president Joe Biden), two moderates (Colorado senator Michael Bennet, and New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand), four liberals (New Jersey senator Cory Booker, California senator Kamala Harris, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro), two ideological progressives (Washington governor Jay Inslee, and New York mayor Bill de Blasio), and one populist who is very progressive on many issues (entrepreneur Andrew Yang).
The topics covered were healthcare, immigration, criminal justice reform, climate change, economics and trade, women’s rights and childcare, political strategies to defeat President Trump, foreign policy, and the Mueller investigation.
Like the previous evening, this debate started with contentious disagreement over healthcare. In particular, Biden was cornered by his insistence to stick with the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare); and, he retaliated by attacking Harris’ alternative which is an intermediary position between the ACA and Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for all plan. On immigration and criminal justice reform, Biden was the target of much criticism (mostly from Harris and Booker) for his stance on keeping border-crossing asylum seekers in the criminal justice system (as opposed to changing it to a civil matter), for his voting record on a 1994 Republican-sponsored crime bill which imprisoned many people for minor offenses, and for the Department of Justice’s inaction on prosecuting New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the 2014 death of Eric Garner.
These exchanges produced some notable moments such as Booker critiquing Biden for repeatedly using Obama’s name (which was and has been very apparent since Biden announced his candidacy), de Blasio chiding everyone about the reality of 11 million undocumented residents who are very much part of our country as well as the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and Inslee unabashedly stating that there’s a “white nationalist” “in the White House.” Gabbard mercilessly eviscerated Harris’ record as California Attorney General to which the senator was visibly shaken and had only a weak generic response.
Kudos to her, though, Gabbard was the first candidate in the debates who identified the ISDS provision as the reason for their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal which failed in Congress. That is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement language in the proposal which would allow transnational corporations to be legally immune from the laws of sovereign nations. Kudos also to Yang who spoke repeatedly about the threats posed to workers by automation and unfair trade policies. Additionally, he reiterated his bold proposal to give every American adult $1000/month in universal basic income (UBI) as a means to stimulate economic growth and prosperity.
Regarding the worst offenders of personal attacks, etc. mentioned earlier, I would specifically name Biden, Harris, Booker, Gabbard, and de Blasio. In my opinion, Biden and especially Harris had poor performances. The candidates I thought that performed well are Bennet, Inslee, and Yang. Gillibrand and Castro did okay and didn’t really hurt themselves.
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