Debate Ruminations

What I’ve found most intriguing about the most recent Democratic debate is the post-debate analysis: how visceral and individual our respective reactions are. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, argues that our moral judgements are governed primarily by our emotions (he prefers the term, “intuitions”), that our powers of strategic reasoning are ancillary, and that we primarily employ our reasoning to rationalize our intuitions’ sentiments. His arguments are seemingly relevant to the way we assess candidates.

Since the debate ended, I’ve heard Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski comment upon how “presidential” U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren looked; although I believe that Sen. Warren had a good night, I don’t think she looks at all presidential. Yamiche Alcindor, the African American female PBS White House Correspondent of whom we, devoted PBS NewsHour watchers, have become quite fond, has indicated that she believes U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris had a strong performance; I thought Sen. Harris had some clever shots, but did nothing special. (Before I get railed upon for being sexist or racist, I would submit that we all have a tendency to appreciate that with which we identify – there was never a candidate that my father, otherwise a vehement rock-ribbed Republican, ever supported as passionately as Democrat John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic.)

Although U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, U.S. NJ Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Ms. Harris, and former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke were all fairly good, I will join the chorus opining that since each of the frontrunners at least held their own, the three-hour marathon won’t materially alter the polls. Sens. Klobuchar and Booker have nowhere to go; to me Mr. Buttigieg’s weakness is that while he, like Presidents Kennedy and Barack Obama, is more cerebral than emotive, he lacks those worthies’ capacity to stir passions; Ms. Harris’ best moments again appeared planned and scripted, leaving one again concerned as to how she would handle President Trump, the master of the unexpected; and Mr. O’Rourke was impressive, but his aggressive positions on gun control (with which I completely agree) seemingly foreclose any meaningful chance to win a Texas U.S. Senate seat after his campaign inevitably folds.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang has apparently decided that he wants to get into the lottery business.

U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, clearly physically under the weather, was a little too predictable and curmudgeonly, but if he loses support, it will probably go to one of the other frontrunners.

Whether motivated to withhold attacks on Mr. Biden by a Democratic team spirit or a desire to start softening her somewhat feisty image in preparation for the general election campaign, Ms. Warren maintained a positive demeanor throughout the evening. She fostered the tone that all of the Democratic candidates want what’s best for this country. Nothing occurred that would dampen the prospect of a Biden-Warren ticket (a notion that finds favor with a number of readers of these pages). She stands to be the primary beneficiary if Mr. Sanders loses supporters. She was the most responsible for making it a good night for the Democratic campaign against Mr. Trump.

Being mindful of my own predilections ;), I thought Mr. Biden had a very strong night. He was significantly more energized than in either of the first two debates. While staying above the belt, he took Ms. Warren to task for the cost of her Medicare-for-All plan right at the outset (before we, tiring at the length of this spectacle, found our minds wandering). While he got muddled a couple of times during the evening, he exhibited flashes demonstrating his foreign policy knowledge and experience: “I confronted [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro”; that Afghanistan “cannot be put together” since it is “three different countries [referring to the Pakistani-controlled east and presumably the areas respectively under the influence of the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Ghani government].” His closing, in which he talked about overcoming the deaths of his first wife, daughter, and more recently, one of his sons, was the single most authentic and effective answer of the night.

I’ve saved to the end of this note my reference to former HUD Director Julian Castro’s tawdry attacks on Mr. Biden. Taken together with my consideration of Mr. Haidt’s hypothesis that our intuitions generally govern our reasoning powers, the reactions to Mr. Castro’s salvos have given me a different perspective on how Mr. Biden might fare in any debate with Mr. Trump. When Mr. Castro pointedly and repeatedly (and incorrectly) challenged Mr. Biden’s memory, his ageist implication was sufficiently naked that the audience audibly recoiled and TLOML – no particular fan of Mr. Biden, and one (unlike her spouse) not given to vocalization during these kinds of events — spontaneously emitted an epithet about Mr. Castro that was decidedly … well, let’s just say … uncomplimentary 😉 . It brought to mind Mr. Biden’s strongest suit: We like him. Even if we have concerns that he may not still possess all of the faculties he once had … we like him. And furthermore, that in the past, we liked Franklin Roosevelt although he was patrician, we liked Harry Truman although he was common, we liked Dwight Eisenhower although (before his reelection) he was evidently physically frail, we liked Ronald Reagan although he was a bit diminished, we liked Bill Clinton although he was smarmy, and we liked Barack Obama although he was out of touch with working people.

When in the first debate, U.S. CA Rep. Eric Swalwell overtly attacked Mr. Biden because of his age, the immediate reaction was: That’s the kind of shot Trump would take. When despite disclaimers Ms. Harris implied in the first debate that Mr. Biden was a racist by raising Mr. Biden’s decades-old comments on busing, the reaction after the dust settled was: That was unfair. When Mr. Castro clumsily raised Mr. Biden’s age, the thought flashed: That’s Trump. Mr. Swalwell’s candidacy is gone. Mr. Castro’s candidacy is effectively dead. Ms. Harris’ candidacy hasn’t recovered.

So I would pose this about Mr. Biden’s ability to stand up against Mr. Trump in a debate: if Mr. Biden handles himself as well as he did in the last two debates, and Mr. Trump can’t resist attacking him in Trumpian fashion, the President will be playing into the Democrat’s hands. Drawing upon Mr. Haidt’s premises, enough of us may rationalize away Mr. Biden’s wobbles to enable him to win the debates and the presidency … because we like him.

On the Anniversary of 9/11: Avoiding Further Radicalization

Below is a link to an open letter published today, “Unless We Act Now, the Islamic State Will Rise Again,” signed by a significant number of American counterterrorism specialists. In their communication, only a bit over two pages, these experts assert that in order to avoid the indoctrination of a whole new generation of terrorists from among those now being held in Syrian detention camps – many of whom are children – the home countries of the detained terrorists should readmit them and their families, prosecute under their home laws those that have actively engaged in terrorism, and at the same time fully accept the innocents back into their respective societies without tarnish.

Although the Trump Administration – in fairness, not unlike the two previous Administrations – has primarily focused on our battlefield success and failure, these national security professionals submit that unless we prevent the radicalization of the next generation of youth through “soft” and just measures, we are sentencing ourselves to remain in our current quagmire.

https://thesoufancenter.org/open-letter-from-national-security-professionals-to-western-governments/

 

On the September Democratic Debate

From the jumble of candidates we needed to consider in the summer’s Democratic Presidential Candidate debates, it seems that from a handicapping standpoint, the party has winnowed down to meaningful contenders surprisingly quickly. Before we get to the middle of the stage:

Absent will be a number of candidates that are more qualified for the presidency than several that will appear, including a couple who also would have made more formidable opponents for President Trump. That said, the Democratic National Committee’s rules were well known, and each candidate needed to devise a strategy to gain the party’s backing to run against Mr. Trump. It appears that the absentees aren’t getting that done. At the same time, several may be attractive Vice Presidential nominee alternatives depending upon which candidate the party ultimately anoints.

Three second tier candidates may still entertain dreams that they can capture the nomination. U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar may believe that if she turns in a bravura debate performance and former Vice President Joe Biden seriously falters, moderates will coalesce around her candidacy. South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg may believe that he can reenergize his candidacy if he can create a debate “moment” in which he displays empathy about the plight of African Americans in this country sufficient to soften that community’s (in my view, misplaced) reservations about him. U.S. CA Sen. Kamala Harris may believe that with a few well-timed salvos such as she launched in the first debate, she can catapult herself back into the top tier of candidates.

If required to bet on the possibility of any of these happening or that Green Bay Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will at some point this season throw a “Hail Mary” pass to win a game in its last seconds … my money would be on Mr. Rodgers.

One might muse that if they are being realistic, U.S. NJ Sen. Cory Booker and former HUD Director Julian Castro have recognized that their best prospects appear to be a Vice Presidential nomination (or in Mr. Castro’s case, a substantial role in a future Democratic administration that will provide a springboard for future Texas or national campaigns). We’ll be able to determine from their performances whether they are.

Former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Businessman Andrew Yang are presumably appearing Thursday night because, like Richard Gere’s Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman … they’ve got nowhere else to go.

As someone who fervently hopes for the defeat of Mr. Trump because of his disregard for truth, his assaults on the freedom of speech, his enemies, and our institutions, his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, his erraticism, his self-aggrandizement, and his greed much more than due to his substantive policies (although I strongly disagree with virtually all of them, policies can always be modified; tarnished principles are rarely retrieved), I am becoming ever more deeply concerned that Democrats are taking their eyes off the ball. Although I will be warily assessing how Mr. Biden responds to jibes and how much vitality he exhibits, and will appreciate U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders as a loveable, predictable, curmudgeonly Lion in Winter, my primary focus on Thursday night will be on the approach and attitude taken by U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Sen. Warren’s summer advance has been impressive. That said, in New Hampshire this past weekend, to an apparently enthusiastic response from NH Democratic Party activists, Ms. Warren declared, in part, as follows: “There is a lot at stake. And people are scared [presumably, that someone too far left will cause moderates to vote for Mr. Trump in 2020]. But we can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in because we’re scared. And we can’t ask other people to vote for someone we don’t believe in.” Dangerous words – words the sound more like someone intent on winning the nomination than in Democrats capturing the White House. Words that Republicans will use to attempt to depress progressive turnout if Mr. Biden wins the nomination. Ms. Warren obviously truly believes that the progressive agenda is the best way forward for this country and – of extreme concern, whether it is or not – that enough of our voters spread across enough of our pivotal Electoral College states agree with her. I fear that Ms. Warren may be developing a misimpression similar to that to which Mr. Trump fell subject during the 2018 campaign: projecting the enthusiasm she sees among zealots at her rallies upon the public as a whole. Although I admire Ms. Warren’s ability and zeal, the pictures of two former Democratic presidential nominees appear in my mind when I watch her: Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern.

One of the ironies of the campaign is that in a culture that celebrates the young, the iPhone, tattoos, 5G, Snapchat, purple hair, streaming, and WhatsApp, we seem most likely at this point to be placing our future from 2021 to 2025 in the hands of one of four quarrelling septuagenarians. (Clearly, I remain in mourning over Ms. Klobuchar’s and Mr. Buttigieg’s declines despite being close to 70 myself.) At the same time, I am hoping that because of their relatively advanced ages, all three Democratic frontrunners will keep in mind that any Democratic candidate’s victory over Mr. Trump is more important than winning the Democratic nomination. Will they strike the tone that all three want what’s best for this country, but that their approaches are different – i.e., frame their exchanges as good faith policy disagreements? Or do they attack each other and provide fodder for the Republicans to use in the fall against the eventual nominee?

The Effect of the Biden Candidacy

Commenting on the last post, someone very close to me, whom I consider an insightful critic of public affairs (except, of course, when he and I disagree 😉 ], has soured on former Vice President Joe Biden; he considers Mr. Biden (my use of sports vernacular to convey his sentiments) too old and too slow to either beat President Trump or serve as president through 2024. No fan of Mr. Trump, he is instead becoming more enthusiastic about U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

From a handicapping standpoint, I continue to have (in blog speak) grave misgivings about Sen. Warren’s ability to defeat the President in the pivotal swing states; in street talk: I don’t think she can do it. (My apologies to U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders’ adherents; although my gut tells me that at least in Wisconsin, he would fare relatively better against Mr. Trump than Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders appears to be wilting under Ms. Warren’s advance). At the same time, our friend’s concerns have caused me to ponder whether Mr. Biden, by entering the race, may be bringing about the result that he sought to avoid – Mr. Trump’s reelection – by having taken all the air out of the other Democratic moderates’ candidacies.  Given the dynamics of the race, it’s no longer “early.” U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar will be barely on the stage in the next Democratic presidential candidate debate, while other moderate candidates who might have garnered support in Mr. Biden’s absence – U.S. CO Sen. Michael Bennet, MT Gov. Steve Bullock, and former U.S. MA Rep. John Delaney – haven’t qualified; while I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong, I will venture that without a presence on the debate stage, their candidacies are effectively over.

Mr. Biden’s candidacy has pre-empted a healthy debate among moderates – and muddied that between moderates and progressives – that perhaps would have sustained greater rigor had he not entered the fray. Those of us that fervently wish for Mr. Trump’s defeat but fear that a decisive segment of independent voters might recoil from an overtly progressive agenda must seemingly now rely upon the hope that Mr. Biden’s candidacy doesn’t falter; if it does, we could be left only with Democratic candidates that may be little more than fodder in critical states under the Republican 2020 campaign assault.

Tonight, a good share of us will put aside matters of state to focus on how the Green and Gold perform against the Bears; but in little more than a year, Wisconsinites could, for good or ill, very likely be crucial in determining our nation’s future path. I hope Democratic voters across the country keep us in mind as they render their support for presidential hopefuls during the upcoming primary season.

On Our Need for a Transitional Administration

Although in most polls former Vice President Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead over his nearest competitors, U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, we can be certain that – as my sainted mother used to say – the fur will fly in the upcoming September debates among the ten candidates that will appear on stage under the Democratic National Committee rules. Mr. Biden can certainly anticipate that much of the “incoming” will be directed at him.

I hope – despite Mr. Biden’s previously lackluster debate performances, his gaffes, his pauses, and his half-correct narratives – that he wins the Democratic nomination. I continue to believe from a handicapping standpoint that he has the best chance of any likely nominee to defeat President Trump and that he has the broadest and deepest qualifications of any Democrat to address the imposing array of domestic and foreign challenges we face. That said, I have come to consider another reason equally compelling: Mr. Biden’s well-intended spirit, combined with his age and his moderate views, will give us a chance to take a breath without committing us either to continue the dark Trump agenda or to a high dive into a brave new progressive world. After the hellacious rollercoaster ride to which Mr. Trump has subjected us, we’ll need to sit on the park bench for a bit. We need an opportunity to take stock. We need a transitional administration.

Right now, Ms. Warren appears to be surging, although her advance has seemingly come with little or no diminution in Mr. Biden’s support; the two continue in different nomination “lanes”. Many, including me, have suggested that if Mr. Sanders’ support unravels, Ms. Warren will be the overwhelming beneficiary. I’m now wondering whether that was too quick a judgement. Both Mr. Biden and Mr. Sanders appear to have support among white working class voters; if Mr. Sanders’ candidacy falters and his support splits between Mr. Biden and Ms. Warren, that might well assure the former Vice President of the Democratic nomination – and while likewise making clear the need to accommodate Ms. Warren’s notable following within the party.

If there is any validity to these musings, a Biden-Warren pairing might well be the Democrats’ strongest ticket to the White House. The Republicans won’t be readily able to label any ticket led by Mr. Biden as “socialist” or scary; in debates against Mr. Trump, the fatherly, reassuring Mr. Biden might well get the same benefit of the doubt from an uncertain and exhausted electorate that President Ronald Reagan enjoyed against former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984; and Ms. Warren would seemingly fare well in a debate against the somnolent Vice President Mike Pence.

All that said, I hope that any Biden-led ticket – and its supporters – understand that scholars will very likely view a Biden presidency’s most significant achievement to be the termination of the Trump presidency. Its campaign message might be: “Setting a Clean Slate for America.” There are undoubtedly better slogans, but a President Biden would, in my view, need to project both a determination to heal the wounds of the present and an understanding of his transitional role in our history. As to the former, a Biden Administration would need to restore respect for the rule of law, competence, stability, honesty, decency, and normalcy after the malignant chaos that has characterized the Trump presidency. As to the latter, a Biden Administration should tacitly acknowledge the practical reality that even if Democrats capture a Senate majority, there will not be an appetite among a majority in Congress for the extraordinary domestic changes progressives are urging. Equally important: we are not emotionally ready for another disrupter. While working to calm our toxic political environment and steadying our course in foreign affairs, a Biden Administration should seek to provide us a clean slate so that Ms. Warren, Mr. Pence, the promising 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates, former U.S. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. FL Sen. Marco Rubio, and others from both parties who will emerge, can present us with a menu of visions for our future starting in 2025.

An American Experience

A member of our extended family recently sent out an account describing a cross-country cycling trip he just completed with a friend. I was so taken with his note that I got his permission to reprint parts of it here:

“The trip took us 54 days, a total of about 322 hours of riding. This journey has taught me a lot about the country that I live in … The natural beauty that can be found everywhere is astonishing, whether it is the rolling hills of Montana, the lush mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire … or … the widespread expanses of cornfield …. And the people living there will let you know about how special their little corner of the world is.

Looking back, I was initially most nervous to venture into small rural towns on a bicycle as the outsider, desperate to find a place to eat and sleep. I would have no idea where to get food, go to the bathroom, or pitch a tent. However, it was in these small communities where I felt most welcomed. Countless times, people there pointed us in the right direction, gave us encouragement, and more often than not opened their homes, churches, or city facilities to us asking nothing in return. It was in these towns where I realized how important human interaction was on this trip …. In reality, it was the larger cities that were the most stressful … people interacting with us skeptically. Cities had all of the essential materials for me to thrive while traveling, but were missing the most important aspect of the trip, understanding and compassion. We live in a fast paced world. This trip has allowed me to slow down and appreciate everything and everybody that this country has to offer, even those who don’t see eye to eye with myself or others. I think that by slowing down and living simply encourages conversations and empathy when interacting with others of different backgrounds and stories than our own.”

I know that our family member would agree that he and his friend might have faced a greater level of distrust during parts of their journey had they been brown or black, rather than white; that said, their experience and his wonderful note underscored again for me that the vast majority of our people, even if possessed of divergent experiences, different apprehensions, and conflicting views, sincerely mean well. To say more would detract from the power of an account that speaks so eloquently for itself.

On the White Liberal “Outrage Feedback Loop”

Below is a link to an article by Zach Goldberg recently published in Tablet, an American Jewish online magazine. It was sent to me by someone very close, I suspect as a result of his considerable bemusement at my exasperation with the desire of the “Woke” to suppress use of English gender-specific pronouns. Although one might not infer it from the piece, Tablet is rated as having a “Left-Center” bias by mediafactcheck.com.

In his essay – part data-centered, part opinion – Mr. Goldberg refers to a white liberal “outrage feedback loop,” which he states has accentuated reactions regarding the extent of American racial injustice among those white liberals relatively more active in cyberspace as contrasted with those that are not. (Mr. Goldberg’s use of the phrase, “white liberals,” covers too wide a gamut for me; I would suggest that those whom the author calls, “white liberals,” could perhaps be more precisely identified as, “white avid progressives.”) I found this statement remarkable, if accurate:

“[W]hite liberals recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias — meaning that among all the different [ethnic] groups surveyed[,] white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.”

I take issue with certain of the positions Mr. Goldberg sets forth — for example, that “… conservatives of today are not all that different from the conservatives of years past” and that “… it’s the frustration with white conservatives’ inability or reluctance to keep pace with liberals on the path to enlightenment that is intensifying our political divide” – but I nonetheless found his essay thought-provoking – a useful ballast for my tendency to be sensitive to the effect that alt-right outrage feedback silos are having at the other end of our political spectrum. To the extent that Mr. Goldberg’s positions are well-grounded, they underscore the narrowness of the path any Democrat must navigate to both secure the nomination and win the presidency.

Finally, for those who up to now have been blissfully unaware of what it means to be “woke,” clicking on the link will open up a whole new world.   😉

 

https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/284875/americas-white-saviors