On Democratic Presidential Debate Strategy: Night I

I note that recent polls measuring support among Democratic Presidential nominee hopefuls find former Vice President Joe Biden with a comfortable lead at about 30%, with VT Sen. Bernie Sanders and MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren each following with totals in the mid-teens that, if taken together, are only a bit behind Mr. Biden’s. South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg and CA Sen. Kamala Harris are next, each in the 7-8% range, with the better-known trailers – MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, NJ Sen. Cory Booker, former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke, and former U.S. HUD Sec. Julian Castro – hovering in the 2% range. The rest of the candidates – the WAYTOs (“What Are You Thinking Of?”) – all are hovering at … 0%. About 20% of the primary electorate prefers “None of These” or “Not Sure.”

The conventional pundit wisdom appears to be that given Mr. Biden’s lead in the polls, most of the candidates will be aiming barbs at the former Vice President in the upcoming debates, seeking to draw him back into the pack. This is not the strategy I’d advise all candidates to follow. I suggested in an earlier note that winning major party nominations can frequently be about lanes, and being mindful that this contest will be pretty wide open at least through early March, I would offer these varying approaches for the respective candidates, starting with the Night I panel:

Ms. Warren: Being on the first night, alone among the front runners, is an advantage. I would pay Mr. Biden only tangential attention. Mr. Sanders is in her lane, and she needs to capture a significant segment of Mr. Sanders’ supporters quickly or risk having she and Mr. Sanders continue to split the progressive vote while Mr. Biden commands the majority of moderates, keeps winning, and takes the nomination. She needs to have snappy answers encapsulating her policies and how they will help working people. She needs to continue to embrace capitalism. She needs to attack Mr. Trump, but from the high ground – by pointing out how his policies have not helped working people. She needs to be ready with details on foreign policy, an area in which Mr. Sanders is weak. She needs to have an effective answer to her Native American ancestry snafu. She needs a couple of humorous lines to humanize herself. If on Friday her national percentage has notably gone up and Mr. Sanders’ has notably gone down – no matter what Mr. Biden’s percentage is – she succeeded.

Mr. O’Rourke: Being on the first night also provides him with a significant advantage to add to his support in his lane: the Shiny New Toy Lane. While Mr. O’Rourke undoubtedly thought he had the “Shiny New Toy” mantle when he announced his candidacy, Mr. Buttigieg has wrested it from him. He needs to wrest it back soon, or his campaign will falter. Mr. Buttigieg has obviously had a very difficult week from many perspectives, including political handicapping; this provides Mr. O’Rourke a greater opening than he might otherwise have had to reclaim his lane. Mr. O’Rourke should be upbeat, preach hope, appeal to the young with talk of the future, the environment, and the student debt crisis, and discuss health care. Describing his efforts with migrants in his home town of El Paso and his support of African American issues might provide him a wedge against Mr. Buttigieg. If on Friday his national percentage has notably gone up and Mr. Buttigieg’s has notably gone down, he succeeded.

Ms. Klobuchar: She recently said that she would finish in the top 5 or 6 in Iowa. Given her state’s proximity to Iowa, I think she needs to finish significantly higher there to maintain a viable candidacy. Her primary debate audience has to be Iowa caucus voters. She should look warm, stress her Midwestern roots, and talk about her support of farmers. Being mindful of the recent Fox News poll indicating that Democratic voters heavily favor “steady and reliable leadership,” she should describe her record of bipartisanship, mention her foreign trips with the late Sen. John McCain, and point to her success in winning rural Congressional districts in Minnesota. She needs an effective answer to the claims that she’s unreasonably hard on staff. She needs to hope that Mr. Biden falters the following night, because with a good performance she could inherit any moderates developing misgivings. To me the primary measure of her success is whether she jumps into or within striking distance of the top 3 in Iowa Democratic polls.

Mr. Booker: He has seemingly struggled thus far to find a lane. He began by preaching hope, but failed to gain traction. He lately has stressed African American issues to try to establish position in the Identity Lane, but Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have thus far limited his ability to make headway there. His very liberal voting record prevents him from challenging in the moderate lane, but he has failed to gain ground against Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren in the progressive lane. To remain viable, he needs to build support in the black community by stressing his background, his record as Mayor of Newark, his belief in slavery reparations, etc. He needs to peel black support from Mr. Biden — Mr. Biden’s recent gaffes regarding his relationships with segregationist Senators provide Mr. Booker an opening – but needs to do so gently, given Mr. Biden’s absence on Night I. If he jumps to the 5% range or higher in the Friday national polls, he was successful; if he remains at around 2%, his candidacy would appear to be sinking.

Mr. Castro: Mr. Castro has presumably based his candidacy on the premise that he would engender significant Hispanic support. His target audience is obvious: the Hispanic community. If he can’t build notable Hispanic support by discussing his background, migrant issues, etc., his candidacy would seemingly be effectively ended, although continuing his campaign could make him an attractive Vice Presidential nominee.

The WAYTOs: Ms. Gabbard and Messrs. Ryan, Inslee, Delaney, and de Blasio: Need to say something to register on the polling Richter Scale, or it’s time to fold up shop. I saw one pundit who thinks Mr. Ryan could shine, and Mr. Ryan does have the background to make headway in the moderate lane.

On Democratic Attempted Self-Immolation

As all who care are already aware, a fracas has sprung up during the past week regarding former Vice President Joe Biden’s remarks at a fund raiser regarding his relationship with segregationist U.S. Senators James Eastland (MS) and Herman Talmadge (GA) in the 1970s. While Mr. Biden’s comment, “[Mr. Eastland] never called me, ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son’,” was clearly a mindless choice of words, the purported outrage that has poured forth from other Democratic candidates and liberal talking heads regarding Mr. Biden’s remarks has conveniently ignored his other comments: that he and the segregationists “… didn’t agree on much of anything,” that he’d “… argue like the devil with them” and that Mr. Talmadge “… was one of the meanest guys I ever knew.” Some progressives, intent on a political holy war, seemingly reject Mr. Biden’s underlying point: the need for our representatives of different political stripes to make an effort to find some common ground.

I would submit that there is only one relevant question in all this – and that, of the most vital importance: Is Mr. Biden is a racist? If he is, his critics should forthrightly say so, and present their evidence. Apparently no one who knows Mr. Biden — including former President Barack Obama, SC U.S. Rep James Clyburn, GA U.S. Rep. John Lewis, or Rev. Al Sharpton — thinks he is a racist. I would therefore suggest that the exaggerated indignation over what was a tone-deaf choice of words is at least misinformed (it’s hard to see how CA Sen. Kamala Harris can sensibly accuse Mr. Biden of “speaking with such adoration” of, or “coddling” Mr. Talmadge, given the former Vice President’s reference to the late Senator as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew”), and probably opportunistic grandstanding (“I was raised to speak truth to power,” pronounced NJ Sen. Cory Booker while criticizing Mr. Biden – the same Mr. Booker who memorably if incongruously declared himself “Spartacus” during the Kavanaugh hearings).

The disagreement of some of Mr. Biden’s critics with the former Vice President’s larger point – the need to reach consensus, to find common ground among those with differing views — is wrong-headed both on principle and in practicality. Taking practicality first, as some Democratic candidates and progressive talking heads seem intent on Democratic political self-immolation, Republicans and conservative interests are clear-eyed as to who would be President Trump’s most formidable opponent in 2020. What follows are all from the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages this past Thursday:

Conservative Columnist Daniel Henninger noted a recent Fox News poll showing that Democratic voters favored “steady and reliable leadership” (72%) over a “bold, new agenda” (25%). “Mr. Biden may be doing so well in the head-to-heads against Mr. Trump because many voters simply want respite from the nonstop Trumpian atmosphere of disruption and volatility.… Joe Biden is offering a return to normalcy…. [I]f these polls are right, after four years of Donald Trump the prospect of being force-fed daily doses of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders is unthinkable for a lot of people.”

Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, noted Mr. Biden’s stated intent to win Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Florida, stating, “Republicans should pay attention….With the exception of South Carolina, Team Trump can’t take Mr. Biden’s targets for granted….The Trump Campaign must … disqualify any Democratic nominee with suburban Republican and independent defectors who swung the House to the Democrats last fall …”

The Journal editorial board itself noted about Mr. Trump’s formal launch of his campaign, “Mr. Trump may figure he can persuade some of those skeptics by making the Democratic nominee even more unpopular than he is. If the Democrats oblige by nominating Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, that might be possible. But that is making a bet on the other party’s mistake …”

Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker aren’t even figuring in the other side’s thinking, and these Senators clearly realize that if they can’t convert some of Mr. Biden’s African American support to their campaigns, their candidacies are finished. The wise heads politically leading the African American Community – and I would bet the majority of the politically savvy within the Community – appear at this point to be sticking with Mr. Biden because they recognize that he is both a genuine friend of African Americans and the best bet to rid us all of President Trump. There will be time to think about Spartacus later.

Finally, as to principle: Neither party is the font of all wisdom nor the den of all iniquity. Our system is one of “checks and balances” because it is based upon the premise, in practice as far back as Hamilton and Jefferson, that constructive policy depends upon trust between and the well-intended engagement of those with competing views. The collegiality that Mr. Biden urges will be an inherent part of whatever progress we hereafter make as a people and a nation. The avid progressives seeking a political crusade from the left are as misguided and potentially as destructive as the alt-conservatives waging such offensives from the right.

“The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Those who are healthy do not need a physician, but the sick do. I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.’” Luke 5:30-32.

Although it seems more than a bit blasphemous to compare politicians’ political machinations to the Lord’s quest for souls, since we as voters cling to the hope that our representatives will do what they can to make the world better, perhaps the most effective methods to reach souls and achieve a better world are indeed similar. While the Democrats will probably get by this kerfuffle, I never discount their capacity to self-righteously self-destruct.

The Wisdom and Power of God …

Yesterday, Father’s Day in the United States and many other countries around the world, the Catholic Church celebrated (I assume by coincidence) Holy Trinity Sunday. The first reading at yesterday’s Sunday Masses was from the Old Testament’s Book of Proverbs, and set forth expositions from a personified Wisdom, seemingly separate from God:

Thus says the [W]isdom of God: …

“When the Lord established the heavens I was there,

when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep;

when he made firm the skies above,

when he fixed fast the foundations of the earth;

when he set for the sea its limit,

so that the waters should not transgress his command;

then was I beside him as his craftsman …

and I found delight in the human race.” [Emphasis added]. Proverbs 8:22 – 31

The juxtaposition of this Proverbs passage with Father’s Day – the image of the Loving Father — brought again to mind the Church’s seemingly visceral obliviousness both to the horror of the systemic human violations it let occur and covered up for generations and to the effect that the revelations of these atrocities have had upon its credibility. 35 years ago, our parish had five English Masses each weekend. Now, it has three.  (All credit for the fourth Mass, in Spanish, meeting a need that I don’t believe our parish had decades ago.)  Gray is a prevalent hair color among worshippers. This observation is in no way intended to impugn some very fine pastors we’ve had; good priests have also become victims of the Church’s conspiracy. It speaks to the now-obvious endemic failings within the Church.

At least in Madison (very possibly a legacy of our now-deceased Bishop, Robert Morlino), we are seeing more pomp and ceremony than I can recall since my youth [pre-Vatican II 😉 ] – incense, an occasional Latin chant, ornate tabernacles prominently on display. Perhaps some in Church leadership believe that gilt can be substituted for guilt. The hierarchy (as someone very close to me regularly points out, a bunch of old men) seems completely at a loss to either see or address the fact that most of the young people in developed nations are no longer listening. These young aren’t impressed by the Church’s grand physical manifestations; on a purely material level, its grandeur pales in comparison to the most mundane of the last decade’s video games.

As horrific as the specific instances of abuse are – and I admit that it’s easier for me to say this, since our children had positive experiences with our religious, all loving people dedicated to God – I would submit that Church leadership’s intentional disregard and concerted cover up of religious’ illicit activities over decades if not centuries was the even-more monstrous wrong. This went beyond individual aberration.

If Wisdom was indeed there as the Lord established the heavens, marked out the face of the deep, made the skies firm, fixed the earth’s foundations, and set the sea’s limit … it seems unclear where Wisdom was as the Body of Christ became infected by a chronic pernicious disease. The Doctrine of Free Will seems a less and less adequate explanation. It is gut wrenching. A cure seems out of reach … save for the Power of God.

On Elizabeth Warren

As the Democratic Presidential hopefuls separate into tiers, MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren is by some measures displacing VT Sen. Bernie Sanders as the favorite among the Democratic progressives. While I have great respect for Sen. Warren’s intelligence and command of policy, and very much enjoy her feistiness, it seems to me that she might be the Democrat whom the President would most like to run against. Although Ms. Warren objectively scores well in a number of the measures that I indicated a while back I consider to be of paramount importance in selecting the Democrat that can defeat Mr. Trump, I would submit that in her case, the whole is unfortunately markedly less than the sum of the parts:

  1. Sen. Warren is tough. She will look strong on the stage against the President, and indeed, has a talent for getting under Mr. Trump’s skin. Her age – 71 at the time she would take office – is clearly not a problem against the older President and she looks and acts younger than she is. A ticket to a Trump-Warren debate would be worth Super Bowl prices. Even so, Sen. Warren may be the one Democratic candidate whose strength could be as much curse as blessing. More on that below.

 

  1. Ms. Warren, if not as rounded for the presidency as former Vice President Joe Biden, otherwise appears as or more intellectually prepared as anyone else in the Democratic field. She is deeply versed in the ways of the U.S. financial industry. She has a plan for everything to address the needs of our economically disadvantaged people (except perhaps for health care). She’s less seasoned in foreign policy, although I doubt anyone on either side of the aisle would question that she would be steadfast on America’s behalf in dealing with Russia, China, and other adversaries or quasi-allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That said, Ms. Warren doesn’t necessarily possess – to put it delicately – a compromising and conciliatory nature. One can surmise that as president she might have difficulty working with business interests. One can fairly question whether a Warren Administration would make any progress on domestic issues if Republicans maintain control of the Senate and KY Sen. Mitch McConnell continues as the Senate Majority Leader; every issue will become a brawl.

 

  1. To her credit, Sen. Warren is – subject to the self-inflicted ethnic gaffe discussed below – not campaigning as an identity candidate; she certainly supports women’s rights but her heart seems more focused on economic issues. She is likewise not a shiny new toy in Democratic politics, another plus.

 

  1. Ms. Warren is overtly progressive, to me a drawback. In addition to her attacks on business, she has reportedly said that she is “in all the way” on the Green New Deal, a bugaboo for many voters (although she’s apparently been less forthright about her approach to Medicare for All). As I have noted before, Democrats need the center to win; swing voters’ concerns about the President seem centered upon his demeanor, his veracity, his biases, and his disregard for our institutions, and much less on his substantive policies. Mr. Trump’s most favorable substantive advantage at this point is the apparent strength of the economy. Ms. Warren is extremely vulnerable to being painted a “Socialist” by Mr. Trump and the conservative media – which, whether or not warranted, could persuade some centrists that she is scarier than Mr. Trump.

 

I indicated above that President Trump might consider Sen. Warren his most favorable matchup; I offer such because of intangibles. While beloved by progressives and despite her good intentions, she doesn’t, at least in my view, present a warm image; she seems too much the nagging schoolmarm (or, to us veterans of old time Catholic education, the intimidating nun) who scolded you (and perhaps rapped your knuckles) for not paying attention in class. The Senator’s unforced missteps regarding her Native American ancestry have invited the President’s ridicule, and his mocking references to “Pocahontas” – combined with his inflammatory claims about “Socialism” — will, I suggest, resonate among some of the swing voters that will decide the election. I predict that in any debate between Mr. Trump and Ms. Warren, policy wonks will judge her the substantive winner on every question, but for a pivotal segment of our electorate, the contest will evoke the age-old classroom drama – the President as the irreverent class clown, Ms. Warren as the strict grade school teacher – that Mr. Trump will win handily.

The Democratic Party has already run one Hillary Clinton; I would submit that if they nominate Sen. Warren, they may well, despite her objective qualifications, be in effect doing so again.

Wish I’d Said That

This week, I heard a learned observer – I’m sure enough it was George Will to attribute it to him, but am not entirely positive it was Mr. Will – state to the effect, “From the beginning of the New Deal through the end of the Obama Administration, American domestic politics have essentially amounted to a conversation between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,” indicating that President Trump has significantly departed from the tenets espoused by each.

An arresting image.  Wish I’d said that. In a post a while back, I noted that I consider President Reagan the most accomplished president of my lifetime, but the only reason President Roosevelt didn’t best him in my ranking is … because I haven’t been around quite long enough for Mr. Roosevelt to have qualified for the competition. 😉

I can’t recall whether Mr. Will also observed that notwithstanding their domestic “conversation,” Messrs. Roosevelt and Reagan were, decades apart, almost perfectly aligned on their views of America’s place and responsibility in the world – that which, in my view, is perhaps the most important component of what actually makes America great — or that in this area, Mr. Trump has also disrupted and is seeking to further disrupt if not destroy much of what these two American giants stood for. If Mr. Will didn’t add that … I’m reasonably confident he wouldn’t mind if I do.