Political theater may be entertaining, but it's not very enlightening

Last week’s entry suggested that the impeachment inquiry being pursued by the House of Representatives is a dubious undertaking from either side’s standpoint. In the court of public opinion, 10/14/19.

[The] “impeach & remove” outcome that received 51% of the votes [in a recent Fox News poll] seemed improbable as a 2/3 Senate vote for removal from office would require numerous Republican defections. Like the president or hate him, investing a lot of time and energy in an impeachment battle would establish a new low in this country’s deteriorating political climate – for no real purpose. Why not let Americans go to the polls in a mere 13 months and decide the issue of who should be president come January 2021?

We closed by saying it would be nice to see “a sensible discussion of public policy issues for a change.” Such a discussion is not likely any time soon, however, if last week’s political action is any indication.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stormed out of a White House meeting about the situation in Syria after the president, in her words, experienced a “meltdown” – Hillary Clinton claimed (based on no known evidence) that Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is a Russian asset who will run for president as a 3rd party candidate – the administration chose a Trump resort as the site for the G7 summit in June 2020 (and the president reversed the "decision" before the end of the week) – at a White House press briefing, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made an inartful statement about the Ukrainian extortion theory for impeachment that was heralded as admission of a “quid pro quo” – criticism grew that the House impeachment inquiry is being conducted behind closed doors by Rep. Adam Schiff, with information about what is going on being selectively leaked in an effort to mobilize public opinion against the president.

And then there was the 4th Democratic presidential candidate debate on October 15, which did touch on some policy issues but didn’t prove very illuminating. A report on some of our observations follows.

A. Background & overall theme - Jointly hosted by CNN and the New York Times, debate 4 was conducted before a live audience in Westerville, Ohio. There were twelve candidates on stage (the ten candidates in debate 3 plus Tulsi Gabbard & billionaire Tom Steyer); the action lasted three hours (with three commercial breaks). 4th Democratic presidential debate, rev.com, transcript, 10/15/19.

This was the first of these debates conducted since House Democrats opened the impeachment inquiry, and the candidates were asked how they felt about it in the opening segment. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, all of them said the president should be impeached and most likely removed from office.

WARREN (“this man will not be permitted to break the law over and over without consequences”) – SANDERS (“the most corrupt president in the history of this country”) – BIDEN (“the most corrupt president in modern history and I think all of our history”) - HARRIS (“he has committed crimes in plain sight”) – BOOKER (“This president has violated his [oath], I will do mine.”) – KLOBUCHAR (“I’m still waiting to find out from [the president] how making that call to the head of Ukraine and trying to get him involved in interfering in our election makes America great again”) – CASTRO (“not only did the Mueller report point out 10 different instances where the President obstructed justice or tried to, but [he has continued] violating his oath of office and abusing his power”) – BUTTIGIEG (“this is not just about holding the President accountable for . . . the things emerging in these investigations, but actions that he has confessed to on television”) – GABBARD (“[impeachment] is the only way forward”) – STEYER (“the criminal in the White House”) - YANG (“I support impeachment, but we shouldn’t have any illusions that impeaching Donald Trump will one be successful or two, erase the problems that got him elected in 2016”) – O’ROURKE (“we have a responsibility to be fearless in the face of this President’s criminality and his lawlessness”).

There were ensuing questions from the moderators about a long list of issues, notably healthcare, the economy, taxes, foreign policy (especially the situation in Syria), gun violence, regulating Big Tech, and abortion rights. But the discussion kept coming back to the supposedly terrible job the president has been doing, which was clearly the principal theme of the evening.

BIDEN (Trump’s corruption ) – BOOKER (Selling out his office) – CASTRO (Ohio is losing jobs under Trump [?]) – GABBARD (he has the blood of the Kurds on his hands) - WARREN (he has sucked up to dictators . . . made impulsive decisions that often his own team doesn’t understand . . . cut and run on our allies . . . enriched himself at the expense of the country) - KLOBUCHAR (not true to his word) – STEYER (Trump’s America First program . . . involves having no plans, having no process, and having no partners) – YANG (his erratic and dangerous foreign policy) – O’ROURKE (he sees enemies in the press and wants to lessen their power) – HARRIS (he uses Twitter platform as president of the US to openly intimidate witnesses) – SANDERS (we have got to end the hatred that Trump is fostering).

B. Deficits & debt - Once again, as in debates 1-3, very little was said about the policy issue that SAFE would like to see at the top of the list for the 2020 elections. Indeed, the moderators didn’t ask a single question about the fiscal problem, and none of the candidates brought the subject up. Can it be that these talented and hopefully well-informed candidates are oblivious to the inevitable consequences of habitual deficit spending and spiraling debt?

By way of confirmation, a word search of the debate transcript yielded the following matches to relevant terms:

•Budget – five, including a statement by Joe Biden that the estimated cost of Medicare for All ($30 trillion over 10 years) would be “more on a yearly basis than the entire federal budget” (actually, the federal budget is currently running about $4.5T per year).

•Balancing the budget - none

•Deficit(s) – none

•Debt – five, all pertaining to student or college loan debt that some of the candidates are proposing should be forgiven versus debt of the government.

•Repay - none

•Tax(es) – 68, typically pertaining to (1) tax increases on people or companies who are perceived to be undertaxed, or (2) perceived funding sources for additional spending programs. There were no proposals to raise taxes in order to reduce the deficit or balance the budget, let alone start repaying debt.

•Tax cut(s), tax reduction(s) - one, by Tom Steyer, who said he would “undo every Republican tax cut for rich people and major corporations”

C. Healthcare – In this segment, half of the candidates (the perceived top tier?) were asked about their policy preferences.

•Bernie Sanders supported the Medicare for All (MFA) proposal, which would eliminate healthcare insurance (HCI) companies from the equation and purportedly enable the “overwhelming majority” of Americans to pay less for their healthcare coverage. Taxes would go up for middle class Americans, but the elimination of policy premiums, exemptions and co-pays should result in a net gain.

•Elizabeth Warren also supported MFA, but resisted efforts of the moderators and other candidates to get her to admit that middle class taxes would go up.

•Pete Buttigieg said that MFA was a mistake in that people who wanted to stick with their existing HCI should be able to do so, i.e., the best answer would be Medicare for Those Who Want It versus MFA. In practice, said Warren this would be equivalent to providing Medicare for Those Who Can Afford It.”

•Amy Klobuchar advocated Obamacare with a public option, which she said was what President Obama had wanted in the first place. Let’s offer “a plan, not a pipe dream.” She went on to advocate shoring up Medicaid in order to ensure the availability of long-term care for a rapidly aging population.

•Joe Biden also advocated Obamacare with a public option, which he called the Biden Plan. He asserted that MFA would cost $30 trillion over 10 years, and that the tax increases for middle class Americans would exceed their HCI savings. Bottom line: “We have [to put a plan] forward that will work.” Bernie Sanders responded to this by asking how anyone could defend a system that leaves 87 million Americans uninsured or underinsured, while allowing the healthcare industry to reap $100 billion/year in profits.

•Kamala Harris called for more funding for women’s reproductive health, i.e., birth control and abortion. Otherwise, she predicted, “women will die.”

Biden’s comments were closer to the mark than most of the other candidates, in that detailed studies have pegged the government’s ten-year cost for MFA at over $33 trillion – and also refuted the purported reduction in overall healthcare spending. The Left has a plan — let's pay $7 trillion more for healthcare without any improvement in care, Washington Examiner, 10/17/19.

D. Jobs – Studies show that millions of jobs will be lost due to automation, and businesses keep outsourcing jobs to other countries in an effort to fatten their bottom lines. What should be done about these issues?

•Andrew Yang advocates a Universal Business Income (UBI) payment to all adults, whether they have jobs or not, as a way to help make ends meet. He believes that job losses due to automation are inevitable, and did not mention any offsetting new jobs (such as has occurred in the past to make up for losses in traditional jobs).

•Bernie Sanders has proposed a federal guarantee of jobs at $15 per hour. Asked how so many people could be put to work, he cited upgrading the nation’s “collapsing infrastructure” (15M jobs), Green New Deal (20M jobs), education workers, and healthcare workers.

•Cory Booker suggested that raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would do more for lower income workers than an UBI.

•Elizabeth Warren favors “accountable capitalism” to prevent jobs outsourcing. Instead of UBI, she would liberalize Social Security benefits to ensure older workers could retire with dignity.

•Julian Castro would invest in infrastructure and the Green New Deal; he is also open to a demonstration program for UBI.

•Tulsi Gabbard nixed the idea of guaranteed federal employment on grounds that this would undermine the incentive for workers to find productive employment.

•Beto O’Rourke said Americans don’t want a handout or job guarantee, they just want “a shot.” To this end he would beef up the educational system (better pre-K through 12, ensure that cost does not deter those who want to attend college), strengthen unions, both here and in Mexico, create 5 million apprenticeships, and invest in the Green New Deal.

E. Wealth inequality/Taxes – Some candidates offered more clear-cut ideas than others, but none of them were averse to the idea of raising taxes on businesses or the affluent, just so long as the effect wouldn’t be perceived as “punitive.” No one mentioned the possibility that raising taxes might slow economic growth.

•Bernie Sanders confirmed his support for a wealth tax so that “the wealthiest top one-tenth of 1%” could start paying “their fair share of taxes.”

•Tom Steyer favors a wealth tax, would undo the GOP tax cuts for high earners and big corporations, and says it’s time to help the “90% of Americans” who “have not had a raise for 40 years.”

•Joe Biden says the government should start rewarding work, not just wealth.” To this end, he would raise the capital gains tax to the top bracket rate of 39.5%. And let’s not reward corporate greed, such as is evidenced when corporations invest tax savings in stock buybacks versus helping their employees.

•Like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren advocated a wealth tax. She questioned why “some of the people on this stage” thought it important to support billionaires.

•Pete Buttigieg said all of these ideas had merit, but cautioned that Democrats can’t afford any more broken promises. After all, President Trump had been elected in the first place because many working class Americans felt they had been neglected.

•Amy Klobuchar pronounced herself open to a wealth tax, but didn’t see it as the only answer. For example, why not repeal significant portions of the Republican tax cuts, including a big reduction in the corporate tax rate?

•Kamala Harris proposed a family tax credit of up to $6K per year.

•Andrew Yang said a wealth tax makes sense in theory, but has been tried and failed in European countries. Why not emulate their better experience with value-added taxes?

•Julian Castro would favor a wealth inequality tax, but would also like to see an inheritance tax and higher top income tax rate.

•Cory Booker advocated an “all of the above” approach, saying Democrats must pull together if they hope to win.

•Beto O’Rourke suggested that Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal comes across as unduly “punitive” to billionaires, a suggestion that she strongly rejected.

F. Secret sauce – In the penultimate segment of the debate, candidates were invited to discuss the political path forward and explain why their respective visions would help to win the general election.

•Joe Biden said plans were not enough, a president was needed who would “get things done,” and touted his own experience in this regard. His examples were the Violence Against Women Act – assault weapons bill (adopted on a temporary basis, and later allowed to expire) – economic stimulus package in 2009 – Affordable Care Act. Be straight about what is proposed and what it will cost, persuade the key players, and then follow through.

•Bernie Sanders added that Biden deserved credit for the “disastrous Iraq war,” not to mention two major trade agreements – the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada & Mexico and the Permanent Normal Trading Agreement with China – which had supposedly cost the US 4M jobs. As for MFA, the US is currently spending twice as much per person on healthcare as any other major country on Earth, and it will take guts to stand up to the healthcare providers & insurance companies and tell them they must accept some new ground rules and much less profit.

Given another opportunity to speak again because his name had been mentioned, Sanders added that the majority of Americans wanted a better healthcare system and the other ideas that he was advocating. “The way you win an election, in this time in history, is not the same old same old. You have to inspire people, you have to excite people. You got to bring working people, and young people, and poor people into the political process.”

•Elizabeth Warren touted her success in getting the Consumer Financial Protection Board approved in the wake of the Great Recession. Many people had told her that she needed to accept a lesser proposal, but she had gotten her proposal through the legislative maze. Now she was ready, willing and able to get her anti-competitive bill passed to “beat back the influence of money.” And in this regard, the Senate filibuster would have to go.

•Pete Buttigieg threaded the needle, disagreeing with both Biden (Trump was not simply an aberration, and there was no way back to the good old days) and Warren (who seemed to believe infinite partisan conflict was the solution to everything). The next president needed to unify a new American majority, and that might entail doing things without going to extremes, e.g., we can have immigration reform without decriminalizing border crossings.

•Amy Klobuchar said her forte was winning elections. She cited her numerous visits to battleground states (OH, IA, PA, MI, WI) that Trump had won in 2016. “I think we need to build a blue Democratic wall around those states and make Donald Trump pay for it.”

•As a freshman member of the House of Representatives, Beto O’Rourke had been able to bring about a dramatic improvement in the wait times for mental health treatment at the VA healthcare facilities in San Antonio, TX. Then, working with both Republicans and Democrats, the experience gained was used to organize a successful move to improve the national law. Then came the senatorial campaign in 2018, where O'Rourke visited every country of a very “red” state, “talking about this progressive agenda,” and “won more votes than any Democrat has ever won.” That’s how we defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020.

* * * * *

In our view, the unremittingly negative tone of the attacks on the president and his administration was disturbing. It was as though nothing positive has been accomplished in the past three years, which simply isn’t the case. This sort of extreme rhetoric does not bode well for the future of the US political system.

Some of the candidates are pretty far to the left, while others present themselves as moderates. One senses, however, that the differences between the leftists and the moderates are more about timing than ultimate goals.

Fiscal reality is only being factored into the equation to the extent of asking candidates (notably Elizabeth Warren) how they would pay for massive new spending commitments; no one is talking about eliminating the current trillion dollar deficits. Likewise, there was no discussion about eliminating wasteful spending, promoting economic growth by keeping taxes low, etc.

The goal of robust economic growth seems to be associated exclusively with the “creation of jobs,” and the plans offered for job creation were superficial at best.

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