If Friday’s Debate Changed Any Minds, I’d Be Amazed

MANCHESTER, N.H— I have to admit, the one development that came at me fast during the Democratic presidential debate on Friday night was the sudden transformation of Tom Steyer. Over the past couple of weeks, thanks to the vast amounts of money he’s been shoveling into the state, Steyer has seen a bump in his poll numbers in South Carolina and Nevada. This mini-surge in two states that are manifestly more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire has propelled Steyer’s impression that he has undiscovered strength among minority voters:

Look, out of narrative comes policy. And we’re talking about a lot of policies that affect Americans broadly and disproportionately affect black Americans or brown Americans. But what I believe is we should set up a commission on race and deal with race explicitly. Because everyone is saying we can’t have rules that are different for different people, but, in fact, we’re here because we had rules that are different for different people.

I would set up a formal commission on race on day one to retell the story of the last 400 years in America of systematic racism against African-Americans, not just legal discrimination, injustice, and cruelty, but also the contribution that the African-American community has made to America, in building it and in leading the entire country from a moral standpoint for generations and centuries. Because I believe out of narrative comes policy. We need to repair damage that’s been done officially. And pretending we’re all the same is not accurate. We got here a certain way. Let’s talk about Jim Crow. Let’s talk about Martin Luther King. Let’s talk about Barbara Lee, the congresswoman from Oakland, who’s one of our great leaders. And then let’s figure out how to repair the damage so we can move forward together.

And then there was this, ahem, appropriation of a slogan from departed candidate Cory Booker.

Imagine the mountain and then we climb it together. We are in perilous times. I am asking for your vote. Let’s rise together.

Tom Steyer, sampling Cory Booker and biting his slogan.

It was a debate that nobody really lost. If it changed any minds, I’d be amazed. Amy Klobuchar is getting a solid media bump, but that’s happened after every debate and she’s still bumping her head on double digits. (However, what was revelatory is that Klobuchar genuinely dislikes Pete Buttigieg. She went at him hard on one of his pet tropes — that it’s time for “Washington thinking” to get out of the way of a new mindset for governing, wha-dee-doo-dah. Her obvious disdain for him was refreshing and clarifying.) Joe Biden called for the audience to rise and give Alexander Vindman a standing ovation, which has to be the Joe Bidenest moment of Joe Bidenism in the history of Joe Bidens. Bernie Sanders continued to sail the sturdy old bark that has carried him into the lead in most polls here and emphasized that he is unafraid of being called a “socialist” by El Caudillo del Mar-A-Lago in November. If you wonder why his base is so solidly behind him, that’s a big part of the reason. The man is the stubbornest politician I’ve ever seen. You may not like his positions, but you can’t shove him off them with an earth-mover. And Andrew Yang once again offered me $1000 a month for my vote.

(Look, I know the Yang Gang is earnest and loud but, seriously, if you think Republicans can make a meal out of Sanders’s being a socialist, imagine what they can do with Yang’s “freedom dividend.” They’ve been fighting against a Universal Basic Income of this kind since George McGovern proposed one in 1972.)

Senator Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer.

Joe RaedleGetty Images

But it was the shadow of presidential criminality and vengeance that hung over the proceedings like a black curtain. Klobuchar, too, mentioned the Friday dismissal of several of the witnesses who testified against the president*, and she even managed the not inconsiderable feat of getting a Democratic debate audience to applaud Mitt Romney. (She was the unquestioned queen of the shout-out, name-checking both of New Hampshire’s senators twice, and even throwing the late ABC news icon Cokie Roberts a bouquet.) But the real question that’s rising behind all the squabbling over electability is what happens next. It was the question that Barack Obama dodged—in my opinion, wrongly—as regards the crimes of the George W. Bush administration and of the Wall Street brigands who brought on the Great Recession. Buttigieg loves to talk about the day when this president* is president* no longer, but that’s where he once again dives into the thickets of consultant-speak, never to be seen again. (And, by the way, if you are the cool young New Thinker, shouldn’t you be calling for someone to “refresh the screen” rather than “turn the page”? I wonder about things like this.) The only one of them who offered to take the problem head-on was Senator Professor Warren, who shaped the question into her overall campaign theme of fighting corruption, which is the one of her celebrated “plans” that resonates most deeply on the stump. She wants crooks in the dock and is not shy about it.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In New Hampshire Ahead Of First Primary Contest

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren during the New Hampshire debate.

Joe RaedleGetty Images

Asked whether her proposal for a special independent commission to look into the crimes and thievery of this administration*, something like a modern-day Pecora Commission, would be too “divisive” for our poor, exhausted nation, SPW said, essentially, that we should all suck it up:

Look, I think no one is above the law, and that includes the president of the United States. We watched on Wednesday as Republicans—all but one—locked arms to protect him from impeachment, but we need to reestablish the rule of law in this country. I believe in an independent commission in our Justice Department that investigates crimes committed by our own government. It is an important part of accountability. It is an important part for every administration that we hold ourselves accountable to the American people. Look, people around this country are losing faith in our government. They’re losing faith that government works for them. They see a government that just works great if you’re rich. It works great if you’re a lobbyist. It works great if you’re a corporate executive. But they see themselves and their children with less and less and less. And we could do something about it. It’s not enough simply to talk about the future. We have to be willing to stand up to those who now control our government and make that government instead work for us.

Donald Trump is sui generis—a president* who runs the executive branch like one of the Five Families. The damage he is doing is sui generis, as are his crimes and thievery. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is going to have to be prepared for a campaign the viciousness of which is likely to be unprecedented; hell, getting re-elected is the only way this president* and a lot of his people are going to stay out of jail. That encourages a certain, ah, vigor in campaigning. And, if the Democratic nominee wins, a lot of wounds are going to have to be harshly cauterized before they begin to heal. We learned that once already this century. This time, the infection is bone-deep and spreading.

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