Amid Clamor, Some Substance

Terry H. Schwadron

Aug. 1, 2019

Despite all the hyperventilating and look-at-me huffing and puffing, these Democratic presidential debates turned out to be pretty interesting. The reason: The conversation, though contentious at times, was about more about the substance of governing than about quirky personalities and slip-ups.

It was refreshing to hear. It actually made me — and I hope you — think about the details of how actually to improve health care, protect asylum and immigration, make policing more responsible and the rest. That’s different from most of these televised personality parades, though by last night, the personal attacks grew sharper and more uncomfortable.

If nothing else, the discussions underscored the complexity of social issues. Mottos, chants, banners and hats don’t fix what’s wrong.

Fortunately, we got a handful of one-liners to relieve the sometime heaviness of the talk.

Apparently, the only way for some candidates to move ahead is to undercut the next guy, and so there were divisions — more moderate versus more transformational, more experienced versus more aspirational and the like. Still, I doubt that the sharpest tongue last night gained the most votes. After a generally uplifting first night, last night’s serial pile-on attacks against Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were simply ugly, not elucidating.

For my taste, there were too many only-I-can-fix-it moments; we’ve had enough of that from Donald Trump. But overall, what a remarkable thing it was to hear the back and forth over vastly expanding health care, calming inflamed race issues, pressing for economic fairness — all directions that are diametrically opposed by Trump.

Indeed, the most annoying moments were from the CNN moderators who were slavishly trying to follow the rules rather than let a debate be a debate.

It seems to be a pretty critical question as to whether we care enough about health care to assure government-paid support of a health care system as opposed to the current situation. It seems equally compelling that many Americans feel their hard-won, negotiated health policies at unionized work sites are so critical. If only the rest of America had unions to represent them in seeking to pay for medical care.

Likewise, the celebrated split between more moderate incrementalists as opposed to the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing who want broader, transformational change was plain old interesting to hear thrashed out. In short, a debate turned into, well, a debate rather than a “performance” or individual presentations aimed at taking advantage of free air time.

Throughout the two nights of debates and across two stages, Donald Trump came across as a chump who insults, who errantly is pushing allies away, who is uncaring, and who is actually a substantial political foe. Still, he wasn’t being impeached, a subject that did not arise until the last half hour over two nights, he wasn’t forced to respond to the Mueller Report, which also arose at the end of the night, or even rreally held to account for the blow-by-blow destruction he has been wreaking on health and other social services beyond racist tweeting and bad tariff policies.

You could almost hear Trump watching the debates, beaming inside at playing –or being — a cad who is difficult to beat. For Trump, this is all about winning.

For the Democrats, the criticism of Trump and the winning were assumed. For them, the more interesting question seemed to be about what winning means — what governing means.

Wow, a televised discussion about the appropriate role for the federal government in our lives. Who would have thunk it? Maybe C-SPAN has a new role to play.

You could easily see the split. Joe Biden, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. John Delaney and Tim Ryan, among others, filled out the front line for a moderate approach. Sanders, Warren, and to a somewhat lesser degree, Kamala Harris, Bill De Blasio, Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobucher and Mayor Pete formed most of the change-more crowd. There were a few outliers like Marianne Williamson, who reached for spiritual awakening rather than policy questions. Gov. Jay Inslee got too little time to school the others in climate change.

To Republicans, of course, they are all nuts — “radical socialists,” in the after-debate tweet from the head of the Republican National Committee. The differences among the individual candidates were negligible.

To Democrats, the questions are pregnant with possibility. The moderate argument is primarily about winning, and providing a way to shore up what has been lost with Trump in office. For the transformational crowd, winning is a platform from which to start to introduce “big ideas” that will right morality and fairness, return ethics, and lessen the income and racial gaps in our society.

Personally, I loved Warren’s plea: Why run for president if you just want to talk about what is not possible?

Lost at times is the fact that Trump is working — when he does work — at destroying Obamacare with no replacement health care program in sight, pulling individual supports for our health grid as if he enjoys ripping the legs off flies. Those myriad narrow efforts that have come forth as positive changes have been aimed at reducing costs — and necessarily, the breadth — of health care coverage.

Most people who have health insurance don’t love it, Rep. Tim Ryan notwithstanding. We have it because that’s what employers have negotiated, or because it is what we can afford, or because of our fear of finding ourselves in a financial hole. I haven’t heard from companies wanting to continue to pay constantly rising health prices. I haven’t seen adequate cost comparisons to know who’s more right or wrong on the specifics, but I did welcome the discussion about practicalities. What I do know is that without Obamacare or a public option, we will have tens of millions unable to pay for health care. We need to address health pricing as well as insurance coverage, private or public, to make any sense of any system.

From my point of view, there is way too much public talk about the horse race, and who’s ahead, who’s winning, who’s “failing.” The most direct fact of the debate was that we had 20 candidates on stage who spoke in complete sentences, with complete thoughts about complicated problems. That they could not necessarily agree while trying to distinguish themselves from one another is a point of strength, not disunity.

The public, impatient obsession with winning and advancement is hardly helpful.


Journalist, musician, community volunteer