Archive for July, 2019

[update below]

The Democrats are gearing up for their second debate this week, with questions on immigration and the crisis at the border certain to be posed. In informing oneself on the subject, which all concerned citizens should be doing, some advice: ignore the pundits and pay attention to the specialists and practitioners, i.e., to those who know what they’re talking about. A good piece to start with may be found on the Foreign Affairs website (dated July 16th), “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is only accelerating immigration: The crisis at the border is of Washington’s own making,” by Randy Capps, who is Director of Research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

See likewise the commentary on the MPI website, co-published with the El Colegio de México, by MPI president Andrew Selee et al, “Strategic solutions for the United States and Mexico to manage the migration crisis,” in which five recommendations are advanced, one of which is increasing pathways for legal migration of Central Americans to both the United States and Mexico. If the US wants to reduce illegal immigration, it must increase legal migration, e.g. circular migration schemes (see my post on ‘the border’ from last March). There is no other way.

Another informative commentary may be found on the Washington Office on Latin America website, “There is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s manageable,” by Adam Isacson et al.

It is well-understood that the majority of migrants trying the enter the US from the southern border are not Mexican but rather from the Northern Triangle of Central America. There has also been an upsurge of Africans, notably from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, which Randy Capps discusses in his Foreign Affairs article:

These migrants are the leading edge of a trend that will likely preoccupy the United States for years to come. African countries have among the highest birth rates, lowest per capita incomes, and most unstable governments in the world. Demographers project that due to rapid population growth and high poverty rates, Africa will produce more international migrants than any other continent in coming decades. Conflicts in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Burundi have already displaced millions of people in recent years. And in the DRC, where 4.5 million people are currently internally displaced (300,000 of whom were uprooted in the last month), a combination of ethnic conflict, political instability, and state repression has the potential to produce as many international migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.

Even though the vast majority of African migrants remain in neighboring countries, more are seeking to leave the continent. Hundreds of thousands headed to Germany, Sweden, and other European countries during the peak of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis in 2015–16. But their main route across the Mediterranean has been cut off as a result of European policies to thwart boat crossings and increasing violence and insecurity in North Africa, particularly in Libya, the most popular launching point. With this route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States. (…)

The flow of migrants from Africa and Asia to the U.S.-Mexican border is unlikely to abate soon. The world is experiencing the greatest humanitarian migration crisis since World War II, and most of the displaced are living on those two continents. Until recently, the United States was largely insulated from these pressures by geography. But with refugees and other migrants finding new routes and adapting to shifting policies, that may not remain true for much longer. (…)

On the African migratory flow to the US, see also this AP dispatch linked to in Capps’ piece.

À propos of all this, the latest issue of The New York Review Books (dated August 15th), has an excellent, must-read review essay by Joseph O’Neill on Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation, and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, by Suketu Mehta, who is a naturalized American citizen from India. The gist of Mehta’s argument is that the rich countries of Europe and North America have no moral right to erect barriers to migration from countries in Africa and Asia that were pillaged over centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism. In this respect, Jason DeParle, in a review essay in the August 16th 2018 NYRB on Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, reminds the reader that seven of the ten largest immigrant groups in the US—Filipinos, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Dominicans, Koreans, and Guatemalans—come from countries the US invaded or where it had a large military or imperial presence—and eight if you go back far enough to count Mexico. Salvadorans—the subject of Markham’s book—are here in the US in part because of what we did there in El Salvador, he says. Quoting Markham: “We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America.”

Likewise with a smaller immigrant/refugee population in the US that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: from Somalia, a country the US sent soldiers to in the early ’90s. The initial motives may have been high-minded and humanitarian but the Americans quickly—and calamitously—involved themselves in Somalia’s civil war, the consequence of which was to worsen what was already a nasty tribal conflict—and which saw the entry of new, Islamist actors (Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabaab) that were themselves a by-product of Washington’s Global War on Terror. Somalia had never been a country of emigration but, thanks in significant part to the United States, it became one.

Back to Suketu Mehta, while one may not share his view that the US and Europe should institute what would be, in effect, a veritable open borders regime with the rest of the world—and I’m not with him on this, for a couple of specific reasons—his argument merits a respectful, well-considered response.

Hari Sreenivasa interviewed Mehta on CNN’s Amanpour & Co. on May 21st, which may be seen here. I don’t agree with Mehta on all the particulars but think he has the big picture right.

Among other things, Mehta aptly asserts that the US could triple the number of Green Cards handed out, to three million a year, and not only would it have no downside but would make the country better. In this vein—and departing from my above admonishment not to pay attention to media pundits on the immigration issue—the NYT’s Bret Stephens—whom I would normally not quote favorably—began his column dated June 21st 2018 with this:

I prefer the window seat.

I like to idle away time on flights trying to guess where and what I’m flying over, without the benefit of the map. I’m hypnotized by the red-beige-brown carpet of California desert; mesmerized by the unbroken wilderness of northern Maine; awed by the peaks and valleys of the Cascades; calmed by the serenity of the Great Lakes.

And I draw a political conclusion: America is vast, largely empty and often lonely. Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, covering just 3 percent of the overall landmass. We have a population density of 35 people per square kilometer — as opposed to 212 for Switzerland and 271 for the U.K.

We could use some more people. Make that a lot more.

Right. If the US population were to double via immigration—to 660 million—the country would still have a lower population density than three-quarters of the member states of the European Union. And like the latter, the US would necessarily have a more elaborate welfare state and greater environmental consciousness—and witness the extinction of the Republican Party in its current form to boot. And what sentient person cannot hope for that!

À suivre.

UPDATE: For those who may have missed it, a polemic was sparked over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referring, on June 17th, to the migrant detention centers on the border as “concentration camps,” with Republicans and right-wing media—plus Jewish organizations—denouncing AOC for what they considered to be an obscene use of the term. Following suit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released, on June 24th, a “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies,” thus aligning the USHMM with the attacks on AOC. This provoked a response by several hundred historians and other scholars, who signed “An Open Letter to the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,” published in the NYR Daily on July 1st.

One critique of the New York Congresswoman was penned by Robert Rozett, who is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, in The Times of Israel, “What exactly is a concentration camp, AOC? The prison camps the lawmaker referenced were many things, but they were not detention or internment camps in a classic sense.” Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov was asked by friends and associates to respond to Rozett, which he did on his Facebook page on July 16th:

[H]ere is my response. I’ll now opt out of the rest of this debate since I think I have said everything I can say at the moment.

The article by Rozett makes the obvious point that the Nazi concentration camps were not the same as other detention and concentration camps. It evades the issue that most concentration camps were in fact not where Jews were killed, and that most Jews were not killed in concentration camps. About 3 million Jews died in extermination camps, which were indeed a unique feature of the Nazi regime. The other 3 million were mostly shot where they lived or died in ghettos. The Nazis did not invent concentration camps, and if you read about the horrors of such camps under other regimes and at other times you will discover the family resemblance. Even in WWII, Jews were interned in camps, e.g. in France, that were similar to other detention camps in history, before they were handed over to the Germans, so that such detention camps were a link in the chain leading to extermination. Most important, the term “never again,” as it was understood also by the most prominent and articulate survivors of the Holocaust, was specifically intended to make future generations not repeat the process of dehumanization of other groups of people that could eventually lead to violence and mass murder. It was not meant to prevent what had already happened, which could no longer be undone. What people such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi appealed for was to recognize the humanity of others.

What the current inhabitant of the White House is doing is an intentional dissemination of an idea, and implementation of policies, intended to dehumanize others, be they foreigners, minorities, Muslims, or what have you (including Jews). He is opening the gates, both rhetorically and by bureaucratic measures, to an unmooring of the greatest aspect of American society, from which many, including myself, have benefited immeasurably – the acceptance of people from elsewhere and the fundamental rejection of the blood and soil nationalism that was at the root of Nazism and fascism. The brutality toward children on the border is a manifestation of this new worldview, which must be rejected at all cost because it would undo American society and bring out, as it has already begun, the worst demons that inhabit its fringes.

I won’t go here into the reasons for Yad Vashem’s protection of the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which is an ahistorical concept that hampers the very idea of studying the event, something that can only be done by way of comparison. In this I of course supported the letter of hundreds of historians and other scholars to the USHMM (which has yet to respond) for its bizarre rejection of analogies. The current Israeli government has in fact been utilizing the Holocaust in order to legitimize its insupportable policies viz-à-viz Palestinians. Unfortunately, it too has forgotten nothing and learned nothing from the Holocaust, namely, that dehumanizing others dehumanizes oneself. It is tragic to see this same predilection now threatening to erode American democracy as well. This erosion will harm all minorities, and American Jews who believe that they will be spared it are fooling themselves as Jewish nationalists have done in other places in the past. Allow me not to continue this discussion, I am sure there are those who disagree but these are my views.

Historian Timothy Snyder had a comment in Slate (July 12th), “It can happen here: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s decision to speak out against Holocaust analogies is a moral threat.”

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The Apollo 11 moon landing

Those over a certain age are remembering where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon fifty years ago today. I was 13 and in London, where I had arrived the day before with my family (driving from Italy and France; we crossed the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate, in the hovercraft). We were staying with relatives, on Pennine Drive in NW2, all watching the telly. I remember the first live image of the spacecraft on the ground and, at 2:40 AM on the 21st, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerging from the vessel. My mother and I went outside and pointed up at the moon, me excited and probably saying “there they are!”

I likewise remember—as a snapshot image—when the three astronauts came to Ankara, Turkey—where I was living at the time—in October (three months to the day after the landing; it was a sunny afternoon), on their world tour, of them waving to the multitudes from an open-top sedan in the procession down Atatürk Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. A large part of the city turned out to see them.

On the subject, there’s the movie First Man, which opened last October and was nominated for four Oscars (in technical categories, winning one, for ‘best visual effects’). If one doesn’t know it, it’s the first feature-length non-documentary film on the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) at the center. I thought it very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The Right Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished in training and test flight accidents, not to mention the Apollo 1 disaster—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

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Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

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[update below]

Since the Democratic candidate debates two weeks ago, a number of liberal pundits and Never Trump conservatives have been admonishing the Democrats that they are lurching too far to the left, and that this could be—indeed, will be—fatal to their chances of defeating Trump. Others—including at least two worrywart friends of mine—contend that only Biden can beat the idiot in ’20 and that the Dems are dead if they nominate Sanders, Warren, Harris, or anyone else presently polling over 2%. And then there are those who submit that it doesn’t matter who the Dem candidate is, as Trump is, as the normally smart political scientist Cas Mudde asserted last month, “cruising toward re-election.” This sentiment was reinforced by The Washington Post-ABC poll released July 7th (which FiveThirtyEight gave a grade of A+), that has “Trump’s approval rating [rising] to the highest point of his presidency” (for the WaPo-ABC poll). Echoing Professor Mudde, conservative WaPo columnist Henry Olson—who, unlike other right-wingers at the WaPo opinion page, is not a hack—thus concluded from the poll that “Trump is almost a lock to win [reelection].”

Last August 25th I wrote the following:

One should normally not speculate on an election outcome two years ahead of time—and I normally never do so—but, in this particular case, I will categorically assert that, barring major voter suppression in key swing states (emphasis added), Trump will not and cannot win in 2020.

I may have perhaps been getting ahead of myself but hold to my categorical assertion nonetheless, with maybe the proviso that it is unlikely that Trump will win. As his aggregate poll numbers at FiveThirtyEight were almost identical then—41.9% approval/53.4% disapproval—to what they are today (see above image), there is no objective reason for me to get cold feet now, particularly as Trump’s numbers have been remarkably stable over the past two years. Peoples’ attitudes about him are baked in and strongly felt; the intensity of sentiment is striking, and with a wide spread between those who just hate the S.O.B. and his adoring cult base—with the former some 15% higher than the latter. The fact is, Trump has not topped 43% approval at FiveThirtyEight since March 2017. If his numbers don’t spike between now and November 2020, it’s hard to see how he wins reelection.

That said, one obviously cannot totally rule out the unthinkable possibility that Trump could indeed win, particularly as he does have a few things going for him, namely:

  • The power of incumbency. This may not guarantee reelection (e.g. Ford, Carter, Bush 41) but it does help, as the POTUS can make sure he’s in the news daily and drive the political discussion—and which includes driving inconvenient stories or revelations out of the news cycle (and Trump is, as we know, a genius at this).
  • Trump will not face a serious primary challenger (the presence of one for an incumbent being an almost sure predictor of defeat in November). He owns his party, which fanatically supports him, voters and elected reps alike.
  • The core of Trump’s fanaticized base—the evangelicals—is highly organized and richly endowed, and will spearhead a ground operation to ensure maximum turnout of Trump’s electorate—and which will be an important factor in certain swing states, notably Florida and North Carolina, plus in red states where the Democrats have a shot (Georgia, Texas). Add to this the Republican propaganda machine (Fox News, etc) and social media army, which will go into overdrive, plus eventual covert ops by foreign actors.
  • The Trump campaign will have a huge amount of money, with America’s plutocracy pulling out all the stops to get him reelected.
  • The economy. It’s clearly more helpful for an incumbent to launch a reelection campaign with positive macroeconomic numbers than negative ones—not to mention a booming stock market, in view of how many voters’ retirement pensions depend on that.
  • For the moment at least, no foreign quagmire involving US soldiers—that the public is paying attention to—or major foreign policy fiasco.
  • The Electoral College, in which the Republicans now enjoy a structural advantage. Trump’s operatives know that he will lose the popular vote but are confident that he can repeat his 2016 Electoral College feat.

But then we come back to his poor poll numbers—which increasingly look to be etched in stone—and a few facts, namely:

  • With the exception of a few days after his inauguration—Trump’s ephemeral “honeymoon”—he has never reached even 45% approval at FIveThirtyEight. There is always a first time, of course, but no incumbent president has ever been reelected with a job approval rating of less than 48% in the average of election eve polls.
  • If an incumbent is running for reelection, the election is a referendum on him and his performance. The 2020 election will be about Trump, not his opponent. Period.
  • If the evangelicals will be fired up for Trump, so will liberals and progressives for the Democratic candidate, regardless of who s/he is. The Dems will likewise have a ton of money and a GOTV ground game like none in their history. The number of Democratic voters who will be knocking on doors and getting out the vote will be unprecedented.
  • The economy is going great for some Americans but not for many others—and certainly not for the 40% who struggle to pay their bills. As the FT’s Martin Wolf has explained, there’s a lot of “hot air” in Trump’s boom. And for even swing voters, all sorts of other issues may trump perceptions of the economy—and in this case, Trump himself.
  • The Electoral College: the Clinton campaign (and almost everyone else) was blindsided by Trump’s feat, having taken the three famous Rust Belt states—the Blue Firewall—for granted, and particularly Michigan and Wisconsin, where it consecrated few resources. One may be utterly certain that this will not happen again.
  • Trump has done nothing to expand his electoral base. His strategy is “base only.” Some 2016 abstentionists may come out of the woodwork to vote for him but it is unlikely that he will flip a significant number of Clinton voters. The Dem candidate, on the other hand, has a greater reservoir of 2016 abstentionists—of 2012 Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, notably persons of color and younger Millennials—and greater prospects to attract disaffected 2016 Obama-to-Trump voters. And the Democratic base is larger than Trump’s to begin with.

Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, in an interesting interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, “What the Democrats’ turn leftward means for the party’s chances in 2020,” argues that the election will be determined in six states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (of course), plus Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. This is correct. All were narrowly won by Trump in ’16. FL presently looks iffy and NC is a toss-up but the Dems will be well-positioned to win the other four, in view of the razor thin ’16 margins, current state polling, and the outcomes there in the 2018 midterms. The Trump campaign, with its boatloads of money, will target states narrowly won by Clinton—New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, even Virginia—but more to distract the Ds and make them spend money there, as it is most unlikely that he will win any. So if the Democratic candidate takes PA-MI-WI-AZ, plus the Nebraska 2nd CD (where it was close in ’16, so why not?), that’s 290 EVs. And the election.

Wasserman makes one critical observation that needs to be reiterated again and again, particularly with those who have a fixation on the famous white working class being the key to victory:

[W]hat five of the six [swing states that will decide the election] have in common are pretty robust African-American populations. And if I wanted to know the turnout rate for one demographic in 2020 for the sake of predicting the result, it would be African-American voters under forty.

Thank you. As I’ve been insisting forever, if black voters turn out in the same percentage as they did in 2008 and ’12, the Dems will win. Period. To help insure this, the Dem ticket will, as I’ve been incessantly repeating, need to have an Afro-American (Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Stacey Abrams are obvious candidates).

On the WWC, plus Joe Biden, Wasserman has this to say:

[T]he idea that Joe Biden could return a lot of those white working-class voters to the Democratic fold could turn out to be a mirage. These voters have become culturally loyal to Trump. They are much likelier to live in places where local news is declining—in other words, places that are more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns. Trump’s popularity has not waned much in those places. (…)

[W]hat I think 2016 proved was that doubling down on the evolution of your party and its base can pay dividends. We saw in 2012 that Mitt Romney, who represented the last vestiges of the country-club wing of the Republican Party, simply could not excite the voters that Trump could excite in 2016. I see the same potential scenario on the Democratic side, where Joe Biden might be the last vestige of a certain kind of Democratic Party that failed to excite the future of the Democratic Party.

Wasserman sees pitfalls in an Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris nomination, which could, he contends, reinforce the image of a Democratic Party “dominated by coastal élitists” (Massachusetts and Harvard for Warren—malgré her Oklahoma roots—and San Francisco for Harris). He undermines his argument on this, however, in his assessment of Barack Obama:

[P]art of why Obama appealed in those [Midwestern] states was that he was a Midwestern candidate. He was someone who had experience going to fish fries in rural counties of Illinois, which, culturally and economically, are a lot like the parts of Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa where Democrats’ fortunes have fallen recently.

Wasserman is way wide of the mark here. Apart from the fact that Obama had possibly never even set foot in the Midwest—or anywhere in “flyover country”—before age 22, he lived his entire time there on the South Side of Chicago, which is as culturally “Midwestern” as is NYC’s Upper West Side, the Occidental College campus in L.A., or Honolulu, where he had resided prior. He may have attended a few fish fries and county fairs downstate during his brief stint as senator but that hardly made him a fils du pays.

The fact is, the mixed-race Obama, with his exotic, Muslim-sounding name and background, Hawaii and Indonesian childhood, professorial demeanor, residence in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood (which is so different a neighborhood from any in Middle America), having lived his entire life in global cities, et j’en passe, was, for a sizable portion of the (Republican) electorate, culturally alien and suffused with elitism and Otherness—and far more so than Warren or Harris today. The Republican attack machine will certainly try to affix the elitist/culturally out-of-touch label to both but I don’t think it will work.

On the supposed electoral dangers of the Democrats moving too far left, Never Trump conservatives, plus a few liberal pundits, seem to think that 2016 Obama-to-Trump or soft Hillary voters in the aforementioned six swing states will, hearing that the wild-eyed leftist Elizabeth Warren wants to take away their private health insurance, stay with or defect to Trump. Objectively speaking, there is no reason to think this. First, voters—and particularly low information ones, which is what the tiny number of persuadable Trump voters are—do not read policy papers or make their choice after carefully weighing the issues, and particularly in a highly partisan, politically polarized environment. There is of course some single-issue voting but mainly over cultural or identity markers (e.g. guns, abortion) and by voters who are otherwise highly ideological and partisan. Second, Democratic positions on health care, college tuition, student debt, and other such issues that impact on peoples’ pocket books are largely popular. These do not appeal solely to the hardcore Democratic base. Third, the Dem candidate—whether it’s Biden, Warren, Harris, or any of the others with a shot (N.B. I am discounting Sanders, who I simply do not believe can or will get the nomination)—is not going to take away peoples’ existing health insurance, drive up their taxes, and then impose socialized medicine on them. No Democratic nominee will pledge to do this. It’s a red herring.

Now it is indeed likely—indeed nigh certain—that the Republican propaganda apparatus will nonetheless frame the Dem position this way—as “socialist”—and hammer away at it. The Dems will just have to fight back. À propos, the erstwhile Republican Bruce Bartlett tweeted this trenchant comment:

Keep in mind that no matter how “moderate” the Democratic nominee is, he or she will be painted by Fox and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber as far, far left. I think someone who is actually a lefty might be better at parrying these charges than a moderate.

On the Democrats’ moderates vs. lefties conundrum, there are two recent must-read articles: one by Alex Pareene in TNR, “Give war a chance: In search of the Democratic Party’s fighting spirit,” the other by Ryan Grim in The Washington Post, “Haunted by the Reagan era: Past defeats still scare older Democratic leaders — but not the younger generation.” Both observe that Democrats over a certain age—who were around in the 1980s—were permanently traumatized by Ronald Reagan, his landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, the near-landslide by the otherwise hapless George Bush over Michael Dukakis in ’88, and with the Democrats only winning back the White House by embracing the center with Bill Clinton. Older establishment Democrats are tetanized by Republican dominance during this era and have thoroughly internalized the notion (false) that America is politically a center-right country. So while it is okay for Republicans to take far-right positions (e.g. on abortion, guns, taxes) and pay no electoral price, the Democrats feel they have to tread very carefully on their issues (immigration, health care, etc), even though public opinion may be with them, and not move too far to the left.

Wherever the median voter is situated today, it is not on the center-right as this was understood three decades ago. And today’s electorate is not what it was during the Reagan-Bush era.

One of the stranger critiques of the Democrats inching left is by the otherwise smart and incisive Matthew Ygelsias, in a Vox piece entitled “Democrats are learning the wrong lesson from Donald Trump: He ran as a moderate — and it worked.” Nonsense. Trump ran in the primaries as an anti-GOP establishment populist, not as a “moderate,” and while his rhetoric was centrist-sounding on some issues, such as health care and taxing billionaires (though not himself, évidemment)—demonstrating that the GOP base is not necessarily on the same page with the party’s plutocrat donor class—this was not why he rose to the top of the heap and won the nomination. And his discourse was far-right on matters of utmost concern to his voters: to wit, nativism, nationalism, race, and demonizing the opposition (liberals, the media, etc). Mussolini and Hitler may have sounded “moderate”, or almost leftist, on this or that question during their political ascent but they remained fascist or Nazi. Likewise with Trump. Moreover, Trump has made good on none of his moderate-sounding campaign pledges, but which has led to no appreciable loss of support in his voting base.

One liberal pundit who has critiqued the Dems’ left-tilting rhetoric is the WaPo’s Richard Cohen, who informed the Ds the other day that they “are on a losing streak.” Cohen discussed two issues: busing and reparations for slavery. He needs to chill out. On busing, which Harris brought up against Biden, this will not be a campaign issue in 2020, I promise you that. Cohen’s WaPo colleague Jennifer Rubin, who is the best of the Never Trump media commentators—she strikes me as more of a Rockefeller Republican than a bona fide conservative—had a worthwhile column on Harris and the busing issue. On reparations, the Democrats are also most unlikely to make this a campaign issue. As it is, the only candidate—or “candidate”—who mentioned it during the debate was Marianne Williamson.

One of the more vitriolic reactions to the Dem debate—and with a mean-spirited title—was by the NYT Never Trumper columnist Bret Stephens, which earned him a salutary shredding on Twitter by Cornell history professor Lawrence Glickman. One issue that Stephens attacked the Democrats on—as did other commentators and critics—was immigration. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

UPDATE: David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment, who served in the Clinton administration, had pertinent piece recently entitled “Hey Dems, take it from this ex-centrist: We blew it.” The lede: “New Democrat ideas are past their sell-by date and old labels are meaningless. Time to listen to voters.”

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[update below]

This post, which is a couple of days late, is my first on the Democratic Party’s 2020 campaign, which is well overdue in view of how closely I’ve been following it. I’m periodically asked what I think by those who don’t see me on social media (Facebook, Twitter), where my views are well known: in short, I’m supporting Elizabeth Warren, though am fine with most of the candidates, as they largely agree on the major issues—differing on the details or at the margins—and that each one has as good a chance as the other to defeat Trump. As for the latter consideration, I dismiss the silly preoccupation of many over a given candidate’s “electability,” as Trump-hating D voters will vote for their party’s nominee no matter what. As for the vanishing number of truly independent/swing voters in key swing states—who are not a homogeneous bloc—one cannot know at this stage what will drive their choice in November 2020. It’s a waste of time to be worrying about it—and all the more so as we know with utter certainty that Trump and the Republican attack machine will ruthlessly set out to destroy the D candidate regardless of who s/he is.

Watching the full four hours of last Wednesday’s and Thursday’s debates on YouTube over the weekend confirmed my positive sentiments—with an exception or two—of the Democratic field. Historian and FT contributing editor Simon Schama expressed it well in a post-debate commentary, “Kamala Harris and faith in democracy won this week’s US debates: Democratic presidential contenders bubble over with passion for decency and justice.” He begins:

If Vladimir Putin was watching the debates among contenders for the US Democratic party’s presidential nomination, the Russian leader’s cynical belief that liberal democracy has had its day might have been shaken.

Here was the noisy, exhilarating, living proof that whomever Winston Churchill was quoting in 1947 to the effect that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” was correct. Instead of a semi-literate tweet, there was informed debate; instead of self-serving lies, something startlingly like the truth.

And Schama concludes:

But there is a more important lesson to take away from the debates. Contrary to premature assumptions that populist nativism is sweeping all before it, American democracy is still very much alive with moral intelligence, unapologetic freedom of opinion, and the passion for decency and justice that are its proper claims to respect.

The debate confirmed that the Democratic Party is the ‘smart party’, in which a premium is placed on being intelligent, articulate, well-informed, and wonkish (the other party is the 180° opposite, which we know all too well). And the debate further confirmed—if confirmation were needed—that the D party has moved to the left. There can be no doubt about this. The US Democratic Party is (finally) resembling European social democratic/democratic socialist parties (okay, many of these are presently in crisis, but that’s another matter). E.g. the parameters of the debate on health care, with building on Obamacare via a public option now being the most moderate position a D candidate can take, whereas a decade ago, centrist D senators who were crafting the ACA took the public option off the table, And Medicare-for-All and single payer were too far left for serious consideration. Likewise on the immigration issue, about which more later (I’ve written about the politics of this within the D party here; see in particular the Vox piece in the update).

Some pundits and friends lamented that the candidates—particularly in the Thursday debate—had formed the infamous “circular firing squad” but I didn’t perceive this at all. While the first debate was thoroughly civil, the second was rowdier and with candidates interrupting or talking at the same time—which can happen when people are exuberant and have things to say; it’s not a big deal—but the only real attack moment was when Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden—which was inevitable and, in point of fact, needed to happen. And it will happen again, one may be sure of that.

Here’s my brief evaluation of each candidate, of his/her debate performance and political qualities more generally, in the order of their ranking in the YouGov Blue–Data for Progress poll released July 2nd:

Joe Biden (23%). His poll numbers have taken a hit since the debate, which is not surprising given that his performance was certainly the worst of the twenty candidates, highlighting the numerous weaknesses of his candidacy. This was on display from the get-go, when he was asked about his recent fundraiser with Wall Street billionaires, where he assured them that they would have nothing to worry about if he’s elected POTUS. He avoided the question altogether, giving a boilerplate response from a campaign stump speech. And when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if their health care plans would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants, Biden timidly half-raised his, and then gave a mealy-mouthed response. There were other such moments, and in addition to the one with Kamala Harris. I don’t dislike Biden or hold against him positions he’s taken in past decades—which, I contend, won’t necessarily guide his action if he’s POTUS; he’s an opportunistic politician, after all—but feel strongly that his time has passed. As one journalist put it, “Joe Biden is old.” Period. He’s a has-been and whose establishment centrism is out of sync with where the party is headed. It’s akin to Alain Juppé or Laurent Fabius running in the 2022 election in France. Moreover, Biden has offered no rationale for his candidacy other than “electability”—which is not an argument (see above)—and the delusional promise that he will restore bipartisan “comity” in Washington. Not only is this disconnected from reality but D base voters do not want to reach across the aisle to Republicans. They want to combat the Republicans. And then there’s his wistful nostalgia for the deals he made with segregationist Southern senators back in the good old days. To call this tone deaf is an understatement. More concerning, though, is that it may well be calculated, a cynical strategy that sees older voters as the key to winning the D party nomination; a centrist “silent majority,” white and black both. If this is Biden’s gamble, it’s a risky one, as if he is seen as dismissing the Gen Yers and Millennials in the D party base—who are the party’s present and future—it will create divisions and bad feelings, which will not help in assuring the maximum turnout of D party voters that will be essential to victory in November ’20. For these reasons (and there are others), I do not see Biden as the Democrats’ strongest candidate. Au contraire. And I shudder to think of what Trump would do to him during the campaign (“Sleepy Joe,” etc). The earlier Biden’s candidacy fails and he quits the race—and I’m banking on this—the better.

Elizabeth Warren (22%). What to say, she was excellent. I’ve been supporting her pretty much from the outset and for the obvious reasons: she has progressive, well-thought-out positions on just about every kitchen table domestic policy issue—she has a plan, as everyone knows by now, and explains how it will be passed by Congress and paid for—is a fighter for her convictions (which I share)—she’ll destroy Trump in a debate, you may count on that—and comes across as a good, decent person (and how nice it would be to have someone like that in the White House again). Now there are issues she is not overly focused on, such as immigration and foreign policy. In regard to the latter, I was not entirely satisfied with her article in Foreign Affairs, not for what it said, with which I agreed, but for the subjects it glided over or didn’t mention at all (Iran, Israel-Palestine, the European Union). But that’s okay. A politician can’t be knowledgeable about every last issue. She’ll get up to speed when she needs to. Certain pundits reproached her debate pledge to do away with private health insurance, opining that this was a risky position and could come back to haunt her in the general election campaign. My response: she will have plenty of time to clarify her position, that it’s a long term objective and only concerns for profit private insurance, and that many health care systems (including France) based on affordable, universal coverage have supplementary non-profit private insurance schemes, and that this is okay. In late April I posted a comment on Facebook saying that Warren was manifestly the best of the Dem candidates and that I was puzzled as to why she was underperforming in the polls. This provoked a torrent of reaction, some of it negative toward Warren, from lefties and centrists alike, and particularly women. One was an Ivy League sociologist who said that Warren “comes across as a ‘scold’ and smug” and felt that “if I met her she would wave her finger at me and tell me to clean up my room and put my toys away.” What an image. I will wager that the good sociologist said much the same about Hillary Clinton. Women—plus men, of course—are so severe toward other women in politics, particularly if they are ambitious, self-confident, and play the game like men. The gaslighting of Warren seems to have passed in any case, as has her ill-advised misstep with the Cherokee heritage business. She’s been playing the long game, with Democratic voters now taking her seriouslyWorried corporate interests likewise. Her surge in the polls over the past month—and mainly at Bernie Sanders’ expense, whose voters she’s competing for—has been both striking and gratifying. In lieu of further extolling her qualities, one may read with profit the recent portraits by Sheelah Kolhatkar in The New Yorker, Emily Bazelon in the NYT Magazine, and Joan Walsh in The Nation.

Kamala Harris (17%). There is a near-total consensus that she was the breakout star of the debate, via her now-famous exchange with Joe Biden but also supremely self-confident, in-charge demeanor. She showed herself to be the prosecutor that she once was. In a debate with Trump, she’ll cut him into little pieces. Some think that her attack on Biden was too calculated—as if politicians on the campaign trail don’t calculate—or overly aggressive (a charge that would likely not be leveled if she were male). But not only was it inevitable that Biden would be taken to task for his gratuitous public declarations on busing and the segregationist senators, Harris also needed a hook to peel off older black voters who have been reflexively supporting Biden’s presidential bid. And it manifestly worked, witness her surge in the post-debate polls—and entry into the top-tier of the field—and Biden’s consequent drop, much of which looks to be due to black voters switching. As for her positioning within the D party, she’s somewhere between the progressive and establishment/centrist wings. She’s waffled on issues or quickly adapted her position (e.g. on health care). The left is wary of her on account of her record as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General, with a NYT op-ed from January by law professor Lara Bazelon slamming that record—as not progressive—being widely circulated by lefties on social media (also here and here). Harris will need to respond to the critiques. I assume, or at least hope, that she acquits herself well and quels the left. It will not be good if her candidacy hits a wall, because if Warren doesn’t make it, we must have Harris. [UPDATE: Since posting this, I have come across two pieces that have further increased my esteem for Harris, one on her personal history, “13 trailblazing facts about Kamala Harris,” the other defending her record as prosecutor, “‘The research on her record: Why Kamala’s time as a prosecutor and Attorney General are a damn good thing’.”]

Bernie Sanders (15%). His debate performance was competent but unremarkable. Bernie was Bernie. He performed an invaluable service to the D party in 2016 in giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money, which she needed, and in pulling both her and the party to the left. Watching his campaign launch speech last March, he didn’t say a thing I didn’t agree with. Bernie expresses my values and I can only entirely adhere to his vision of where he wants to take the country. And he’s good on foreign policy too. That said, I am opposed to his candidacy, wish that he weren’t running, and am hoping that he falters early—e.g. comes in behind Warren in the New Hampshire primary—and quits the race. First, he’ll be 79 on Inauguration Day in 2021 (one year older than Biden). He is simply too old to be running for president. It is not reasonable for him to be doing this at his age, even if he’s mentally 100% (but who knows in four years, let alone eight). Second, he continues to call himself an independent. I think it’s a problem that he refuses to declare himself a member of the party whose nomination he is seeking, and for the second time now. This signifies, at minimum, that he has no loyalty to the Democratic Party. And this likewise suggests—and this is my third objection—that he will be less helpful to down ballot Democrats in November 2020 than a top of the ticket candidate would normally be. Insofar as it is imperative that the Democrats take the Senate and keep the House, this could be a big problem indeed. Fourth, Bernie is carrying a lot of baggage, as it were, from his past, making him a particularly rich target for the Republicans (in addition to the “socialism” label, which he would be relentlessly hammered on; on Bernie’s vulnerabilities, see the post-2016 election Newsweek piece by Kurt Eichenwald). I still think he’d beat Trump but the attack barrage against him would be a big distraction. He would be permanently on the defensive. Fifth, his message in 2016 was new and fresh but is not now. He’s saying the same thing. He’s become one-note. And while Elizabeth Warren “has a plan”—and explains how she’ll pay for stuff—Bernie does not so much. I fear that Bernie in the White House would have a difficult time implementing his program even if the Ds control Congress. Disillusionment could set in, which would not auger well for the 2022 midterms. Sixth, D primary voters in 2016 who didn’t want Hillary only had Bernie. For progressively-inclined voters today, there’s an embarras de choix. And particularly Warren. Seventh—and this is subjective—Bernie’s grouchy persona—his almost permanent scowl—may not wear well. One prefers a man of his age in high public office to be avuncular (e.g. Reagan, Biden), not a curmudgeon. For these reasons, I don’t want Bernie. He and Biden—two old white men—should get out of the way and leave the final stretch to Warren and Harris.

Pete Buttigieg (7%). He’s definitely one of the smartest, most articulate presidential candidates we’ve had in a long time and proved that on Thursday. He had good responses to the questions put to him, notably on college tuition—free for lower and middle income students but not the wealthy—and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. And what he said about the Republicans and religion was brilliant. I like Mayor Pete—how can one not be well-disposed toward a US pol who speaks la langue de Molière?—and think he’d be a great POTUS. In 2028 (when, at age 46, he’ll still be a spring chicken). In the meantime, he should run for senator or governor of his state.

Cory Booker (2%). He’s impressive on form, largely so on substance, though I didn’t much like his equivocal response on the Iran deal. But no big deal. He’ll be an ideal running mate for Elizabeth Warren.

Beto O’Rourke (2%). He was the Dems’ star during his run in Texas last year against the ghastly Ted Cruz but that star has faded somewhat, as one learns about his palling around with the fossil fuel, real estate, and other moneyed interests down his way. I thought he was okay in the debate, though didn’t like him beginning his first response in Spanish. We know he speaks it so what’s the point? Julián Castro also clearly got the better of their exchange on immigration. I can see why Beto might not have wanted to run for the Senate in ’20 against incumbent GOPer John Cornyn—to do the whole thing all over again—but it’s still too bad, as the Senate is where Beto belongs. One doesn’t see the raison d’être of his presidential candidacy, particularly as he jumped in the race when the field was already crowded.

Andrew Yang (2%). I didn’t know a thing about him and had not seen his face before the debate. He is manifestly smart and with some good ideas, e.g. on instituting a VAT. He’ll be a good cabinet secretary (pick your department), if that’s what he’s angling for.

Julián Castro (1%). If Warren and Harris weren’t in the race and he were a little higher in the polls, I could easily jump on his bandwagon. If nothing else, he has entirely justified his candidacy on the sole immigration issue, on which he has the best, most thoroughly thought-out position of anyone in the field. And he performed a salutary service to the Democratic Party—and America—in bringing up Section 1325 of the US Code: Title 8, calling for its repeal, and then challenging the other candidates (the Wednesday ones) to support him on it. Good. He’ll be an impeccable pick for Secretary of Homeland Security come January 2021.

Amy Klobuchar (1%). She is smart and sensible, and gave well-considered responses to the questions put to her. Some of her positions may be a tad centrist for my taste but that’s okay. It’s fine that she stays in the Senate.

Jay Inslee (1%). He has the merit of having made climate change his centerpiece issue and the equal merit of being—believe it or not—the only candidate during the debate to bring up unions and collective bargaining. And he specifically mentioned the SEIU, a union with growth potential and a membership that is largely female, minority, and/or immigrant. It’s too bad he’s not polling higher.

Tulsi Gabbard (1%). I thought she came across well in the debate but that’s neither here nor there with her. When elected to the House from Hawaii in 2012, she was apparently seen as a rising star in the D party, including by President Obama, and with a possible national future (this passed under my radar screen at the time). That didn’t last long, as she has come to be strongly disliked by large sectors the left—I see this on social media whenever her name is invoked—for her foreign policy stances, notably her support of the Syrian Ba’athist regime—she has met with Bashar al-Assad, as one may know—and the Hindu bigot Narendra Modi in India. And then there was her past opposition—now opportunistically dropped—to LGBTQ rights. As for nutty hard-leftists who support Bashar (and Russia), they are turned off by the Fox News-compatible manner in which she talks about “radical” Islam. Pat Buchanan likes her but on the left, Tulsi is toast. And one other thing: her Hinduism—or “Hinduism”—which does not come from a South Asian ethnic heritage but rather an offshoot of the Hare Krishna cult, of which her father (half-Samoan) was a follower. I remember the Hare Krishnas from the mid-1970s in suburban Chicago, proselytizing on street corners along with the Scientologists and adepts of the Guru Maharaj Ji (I engaged all in discussion on occasion). They were nuts. Or, rather, a cult. That does not belong in the White House.

John Delaney (1%). He’s the kind of centrist Democrat who has no chance of breaking out of the single digits in today’s D party. In addition, he has not succeeded in becoming household name despite having been on the campaign trail for over a year. In the debate, I wasn’t impressed with his support of Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to pursue impeachment and implying that the American people aren’t interested in this. If Trump has manifestly committed crimes and misdemeanors, he needs to be impeached for this, regardless of what people may say at a public meeting or tell a pollster.

John Hickenlooper (1%). His name has been advanced over the past decade as a moderate, pragmatic governor from a purple state with possible presidential stature. It looks like 2020 won’t be his year.

Kirsten Gillibrand (<1%). I find her to be a smart, compelling candidate, and who does not lose an occasion to bash Trump. As for her erstwhile right-leaning positions on certain issues (e.g. guns) before entering the Senate—after which she had to appeal to D voters outside her rural upstate NY CD—she has explained to my satisfaction her (manifestly opportunistic) conversion and tack to the left. But her opportunistic jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon and then leading the charge against Al Franken—who was hounded out of the Senate largely thanks to her—left a bad taste. I cannot forgive Senator Gillibrand for that. And then she piled it on with her opining that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair. That added to the bad taste. In view of her standing in the polls, I'm clearly not the only one to feel this way.

Tim Ryan (<1%). Didn't know much about him before the debate. His selling point seems to be that he represents a CD in northeastern Ohio chock full of white working class voters who make politicos and pundits swoon, and whom the D party establishment is so eager to woo. But they're lost to Trump and aren't coming back. Dems need to accept that. As for Ryan, he should run for the Senate in 2022, join Sherrod Brown, and keep Ohio purple.

Bill de Blasio (<1%). If he were serious about running for POTUS, he should have declared six months ago, not six weeks, when the field was already full. His candidacy is self-indulgent and irrelevant. Moreover, it's unserious, as his campaign doesn't even have a website!

Michael Bennet (<1%). First time I've seen him. He was quite good, I thought, giving well-informed, well-considered answers to the questions posed. I particularly liked his take-down of Joe Biden's extolling partisanship and ability to get things done with Republicans, reminding the former vice-president that the 2012 tax deal with the congressional GOP was a victory for the latter, as it made the Bush tax cuts permanent. Biden did not have a snappy comeback to that one.

Eric Swalwell (<1%). He was unknown to me before this past Sunday (when I watched the debate online) and still pretty much is. I liked his proposal on a mandatory government buy-back of assault weapons.

Marianne Williamson (<1%). I had no idea who she was or what she was doing on the stage, though that probably says more about me than her, as she is, so I now learn, a best-selling author for over two decades now—of books I have not heard about, let alone read—and has a fairly high public profile (particularly among people who are not riveted to politics). So she's running for POTUS. I found her interventions during the debate to be quirky and/or amusing. Out of the box. But a journalist whom I highly regard is admonishing us to "take Marianne Williamson seriously,” adding “laugh all you want, then remember who the president is.” To which I respond that it’s too bad she isn’t running in the Republican primaries against the idiot. Depending on the state of the D race, I would consider crossing over to vote for her…

One thing I’ve been insisting on: the Democratic ticket must contain a woman and an Afro-American. If there’s going to be a white (or Latino) man, Kamala Harris (or Stacey Abrams) will have to be on the ticket.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Here is a clever, funny, and spot-on take of “The Democratic primary field as a history department,” by historian Jason Tebbe, who blogs at Notes from the Ironbound.

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