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The Democrats High Stakes Las Vegas Dice Roll

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Max Stearns

For the first time since the primaries began, the right people were on the debate stage last night. To be sure, I would have preferred seeing others on the stage, most notably Kamala Harris and Corey Booker in place of candidates I far less prefer even as neither was my first choice. But given current political realities, each of those present—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg—had a rightful claim. This most contentious debate also made me unusually anxious. I fear the resulting dynamics bode poorly for the Democratic party, and thus bode well for the prospect of a second Trump term. Nothing scares me more, and quite oddly, this debate failed to address those concerns.

Following Trump’s Senate acquittal, Susan Collins rightly claimed that the president was sure to have learned a lesson. But that lesson was opposite what she imagined. Trump appears all the more emboldened, self-righteous, and brazen. Indeed, so much so that he just pardoned a former state governor holding the perhaps unique distinction of, if not being more corrupt than Trump himself, certainly being bolder in his manner of corruption. Trump is a man incapable of learning, empathy, and introspection. A second Trump term is truly frightening. And last night’s necessary debate only exacerbates my fears.

Past debates were laden with unnecessary distractions: Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson. This debate was not. There is an arguable case for each of the six women and men who appeared on stage. The stakes were high, and predictably blades were sharpened and multiplied.

Amy Klobuchar: She has been, and remains, my preferred candidate, and by a significant margin. Last night was not hers, whereas the immediately prior debate was. When the sharks are circling, even minor wounds risk assuming disproportionate significance. Klobuchar entered this debate with a small cut, having failed to recollect the name of Mexico’s president along with some of that nation’s policies. A thirty-eight year old’s attack on a fifty-nine year old’s senior moment, especially when all must agree that Klobuchar is remarkably smart, made Buttigieg look petty. At the same time, however, the attack let Elizabeth Warren, who more effectively defended Klobuchar than Klobuchar herself, look magnanimous. Klobuchar also risks having her repetition about bills sponsored or passed, and election victories in blue, purple, and red states, seem rote, losing their power. Most notably, whereas her closing in the last debate was monumental and inspiring—"I know you; I will fight for you”—last night’s call for unity seemed unremarkable and cliched. I continue to think that Klobuchar is the best candidate, and truly I hope she stays in long enough to persuade others I am right.

Michael Bloomberg: Until now, he’s been the elephant not in the room. Last night’s opening volley pitted Sanders against Bloomberg, and more to the point, their respective visions of a democratic socialism, on one side, versus uber capitalism and remarkable philanthropy, on the other. And between the two men, Elizabeth Warren won. Her relentless punches landed. Bloomberg revealed himself without defense. He had apparently used language in characterizing women no less vulgar than that of the present White House occupant. Bloomberg is prone to apologies. And apologize he did. He apologized for stop and frisk and for the policy’s effects in communities of color. And yet, Bloomberg defended and doubled down on non-disclosure agreements involving women alleging workplace sexual harassment, possibly including his own inappropriate “jokes.” This might all be beside the point if Bloomberg exhibited a capacity to ingratiate. He did not. He came off as defensive and as unprepared for the predictable barbs he faced. In an ideal world, he would throw his support and money behind one of the three center-lane candidates: Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Biden, and the remaining two would join forces, anticipating a VP selection or a cabinet appointment. The numbers support the center, not progressive, lane. We don’t live in that ideal world, and the risk of perpetuating this lane division is ongoing fractionalization, which might just allow the dominant driver in progressive lane get to the finish line first.

Joe Biden: The former VP had his best performance thus far. It is not merely that he avoided any gaffes; his answers were tight, non-rambling, and well-prepared. The only strange moment was during his interrupted closing, but that wasn’t his fault, and he handled it appropriately. He does tend to belittle himself by alluding to his role as junior partner to Barack Obama, but that’s as much a feature as bug given his personal history. The problem for Biden is that one debate doesn’t assuage concerns that his past performances both on and off the debate stage have been unsteady at best, and sometimes problematic. I continue to worry, as I have all along, that he will not do well in a national campaign against Trump. But I also know that I will support him enthusiastically should he manage to pull this off. His thus far dwindling numbers aren’t promising, but the next round of caucuses and primaries will be his real test.

Pete Buttigieg: His attack on Klobuchar backfired, making him appear small. His attack on Sanders, however, marks the boundary line between the two wings of the party far more than the opening volley between Sanders and Bloomberg. Buttigieg had one truly great line: “Let's put forward somebody who's actually a Democrat.” On this he’s right even as he’s not the Democrat I’d most prefer. But my opinion is worth far less than one day’s interest on Bloomberg’s bank account, which is why I would like to see Bloomberg throw his weight and money behind one of true center lane candidates: Biden, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar. I am not persuaded Buttigieg can win a national election, and Klobuchar is right to point out his limited experience. Mnemonic recall is a parlor trick. Experience is not.

Elizabeth Warren: She’s a force, and she will go down fighting. She managed to attack Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Sanders all in the space of a minute. But she also profoundly misleads. All around me I see signs bearing “She has a plan for that.” True enough. But bad plans are not obviously better than the absence of plans or plans not yet fully developed. Hers is a house of cards premised on a 2 percent wealth tax that will never pass or that if passed will face credible constitutional challenges. The same holds true for Sanders’s plan for 20 percent worker control of corporations. Warren’s perhaps most misleading claim is that she’s a capitalist. When pressed on that, she defended with “because I am.” Wow. No, her world view is socialist and her plans are a fantasy. She believes that one can tax the wealthiest without affecting capital exit or political pushback. She thinks the wealthiest are so greedy that they’ll undermine the working class, yet so altruistic that they’ll go down without a fight, while the rest of us seize their wealth two percent at a time. Yes, Warren has an answer for everything, and more than anything, that’s what gives this centrist Democrat the most pause.

Bernie Sanders: I will confess that I struggle to understand this man’s appeal and capacity to lead the field. I’m glad he’s toned down his anger. I worry about the behavior of Sanders’s supporters, the “my candidate or the highway” approach among too many of them, and his insistence on a health care plan that is truly outlandishly costly. Perhaps most of all, I worry that when all is said and done, he just might get the nomination. If so, I’ll be compelled to cast my ballot for a man I intensely disfavor even as I predict he’s destined to lose. Bloomberg had a bad night, but he was right about one thing: A Sander victory means a second Trump term.

I welcome your thoughts.

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