Fifteen Rounds, No Decision

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The Democratic debate of February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas was a festival of cheap shots and irrelevancies. It made me glad I’m not a Democrat.

It was also the first chance for the other contestants to pile on former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg — and they did.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years — most of them in the ’90s — about his lewd and goatish remarks. He’d paid them off and they had agreed never to make their complaints public. On Thursday night, Warren dared Bloomberg to release the women from their promise of confidentiality — right then and there, on national TV.

Well, he wasn’t going to do that. “They signed the agreements and that’s what we’re going to live with,” he said. Of course she knew he wouldn’t dismiss the protection he’d paid for. Everybody knew it.

Senator Elizabeth Warren went after Bloomberg’s legal settlements with women who had complained over the years about his lewd and goatish remarks.

Bloomberg’s response was to talk about all the women he’d promoted to important jobs at his company and in his administration in New York. Warren paraphrased Bloomberg’s answer as, “I’ve been nice to some women.” It was a nasty way to put it. It did wound him, and she needed to do that.

Warren also tried to bring down Joe Biden, but with a rhetorical shot of less velocity. At some White House confab, Biden had said he hoped Senator Mitch McConnell, a Republican, would be reelected so Biden could work with him. Biden complained that Warren had taken his comment out of context, which she clearly had. As Vice President, Biden had presided over the Senate when McConnell was Majority Leader. The two were in opposite parties but learned to work together. They became friends. That happens in the Senate. It doesn’t mean Biden was a bad Democrat. Warren knew that.

One of the moderators asked Amy Klobuchar why, as Hennepin County Attorney, 1999–2006, she hadn’t filed charges in two dozen shootings by police. The implication was that she didn’t care about citizens being gunned down by the cops. But how long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum. Her answer was that all the cases had gone to grand juries. Well, it was a question designed to elicit a lame answer.

Klobuchar and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are rival moderates (in Democratic terms), each with a reason to knock the other out. Buttigieg, the smarty-pants who’d worked at McKinsey & Co., tried to embarrass Klobuchar for being unable to name the president of Mexico. This reminded me of the 2016 Libertarian nominee, Governor Gary Johnson, who famously said, “What’s an Aleppo?” Back then, I thought that far too much was being made of the former governor of New Mexico’s failure to recognize the name of a city in Syria. Now I was inclined to excuse Klobuchar for not knowing the name of Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

How long would it take Klobuchar to explain two dozen police shootings of two decades ago? She had one minute, maximum.

Buttigieg wasn’t cutting any slack. “This is a race to be president,” he said. She stared him down. “Are you trying to say I’m dumb?” she demanded. (Yup. That’s exactly what he was trying to say.)

Buttigieg, who had attacked Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from the right, repeatedly attacked Klobuchar from the left. She had voted to confirm Donald Trump’s appointee to head the US Customs. She had voted for some of Donald Trump’s judges. She had once voted to make English the official language. (Terrible!) Klobuchar replied by talking about all the work she’d done on comprehensive immigration reform, and accused Buttigieg of having “memorized a bunch of talking points.”

It did seem so. Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate. When I first heard him talk, last year, I was inclined to appreciate his moderation. Now he seems merely calculating. His repeated statements that Sanders is unacceptably radical are, if you listen closely, mostly about strategy. “You can’t afford to alienate half the country,” Buttigieg said. He was arguing that Sanders can’t win, not that his ideas are wrong. Buttigieg also said of his fellow candidates, “I think at least in broad terms we’re largely pulling in the same direction on policy.”

Buttigieg was also a red-diaper baby, the son of an English professor who translated the books of Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci. Does that matter? The man is not his father, but I don’t recall him denouncing his father’s beliefs in the way that, for example, writer Theodore Dalrymple has.

Buttigieg comes off as the quintessential focus-group candidate.

Biden, in contrast with the others, seemed pathetic on Thursday night. In the midst of the Mexican president foofaraw, Biden jumped in to remind everyone that he had been there, done that. “I’m the only one who’s spent hundreds of hours in Latin America. I’ve met with this president. . . . I’ve spent hours and hours and hours.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I suppose it’s true and also important, but we’re getting really tired of Joe Biden telling us about it.

And tired of him.

The debaters generated acres of blather on the subject of energy. Biden touted a solar power station near Las Vegas that he said could be expanded to serve a city of 60,000 people. I assume he meant the five-square-mile mirrors-and-turbines Ivanpah plant built with federal loan guarantees when Biden was vice president. Ivanpah is the largest solar installation in the United States. It is a fairly reasonable use of the Mojave Desert, which isn’t good for much else, but it’s not something that can be duplicated across the country. Biden also likes trains, which he sees as 21st-century technology. “Invest in rail!” he said. “Rail can take hundreds of thousands, millions of cars off the road.” (Millions? Really? Google “Randal O’Toole.”) Biden was big, very big, on spending boxcars of government money. He said, “I have a trillion-dollar program for infrastructure that will provide for thousands and thousands of new jobs, not $15 an hour but $50 an hour plus benefits, unions, unions being able to do that.”

OK, Joe. You want the union vote.

Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Then there was Elizabeth Warren. The “I-have-a-plan” senator from Massachusetts announced that there is a global market of $27 trillion for Green. (“Green” is now a noun. Get used to it.) Under Warren, Green that doesn’t now exist will be brought into existence in America — “I believe in science,” she said — and, in a Warren presidency, will be manufactured in America. (With $50 labor?) To juice up the global market for Green, Warren would stop all US offshore drilling and all drilling and mining on public land.

Bernie Sanders would end all fracking. “We are fighting for the future of the planet,” he declared. “That is more important than the profits of the fossil fuel industry.” Sanders has a neat way of shrinking a scientific, engineering, and economic problem into a matter of moral certainty.

Michael Bloomberg brought it down to earth. “We’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while,” he said, and nobody argued he was wrong.

Sanders did not like Mike Bloomberg. The man is a billionaire, and Sanders had said that America should have no billionaires. “Real change never takes place from an oligarchy controlled by billionaires,” Sanders said in his closing statement. He also affirmed that he is a socialist.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers.

“It's ridiculous,” Bloomberg replied. “We're not going to throw out capitalism. We tried. Other countries tried that. It was called communism, and it just didn't work.”

The audience booed Bloomberg’s red-baiting. Sanders said he was for a Denmark-style socialism. And anyway, he said, America is “in many ways a socialist country” now. “We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” (This argument was used by the Old Left in the 1930s, as was the derogatory term, “rugged individualism.”)

Several of the others weighed in. Amy Klobuchar said, “I believe in capitalism,” but added that government needed to be a “check” on it, with, for example, universal childcare. When asked whether she is still a supporter of capitalism, Warren said, “I am.” She added that American capitalism has an “entrepreneurship gap” for black and Latino entrepreneurs, and that she has a $7 billion program to fix that.

When asked about capitalism, Joe Biden said, “For 36 years and as vice president, I was listed as the poorest man in Congress. I made money when I wrote a book about my son and it surprised me how much it sold. First time I've ever made any money.”

The presidency, Bloomberg said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

Biden keeps sounding like he is pitching for the votes of life’s losers. He keeps saying that the middle class is being crushed. In his closing statement he said, “I’m running because so many people are being left behind.” He said, “I know what it’s like to be knocked down.”

It’s happening again, Joe. You’re being knocked down.

The man of the evening, I thought, was Mike Bloomberg. Libertarians have damned Bloomberg for his stop-and-frisk policy in New York, and maybe they are right about that, but I live in a city where the police follow the opposite policy — let bums camp on the sidewalk — and the result is not good. (The policy is not the cops’ fault.) Years ago, I ridiculed New York City’s ban on restaurant soda drinks greater than 16 ounces — a Bloomberg policy. Mike Bloomberg is not my guy, but in this debate, I rather liked the man. The presidency, he said, “is a management job. And Donald Trump is not a manager.” Just so.

One thing I noted in Bloomberg’s favor was Bernie Sanders scoring him for opposing an increase in the minimum wage. It was hard to believe that any Democrat would say a bad thing about the minimum wage, so I checked it out. It was true. In 2015, Bloomberg argued that an increase in the earned income tax credit would help low-income people more than an increase in the minimum wage, which was likely to wipe out entry-level jobs. Of course Bloomberg is for a $15 minimum now, because he has to be. In the debate, he didn’t dare answer Sanders’ accusation. But at least Bloomberg understands what the policy does.

Is this a low hurdle bar? Sure. But these are Democrats.

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