Blogging the democratic debate

I decided to try and put down what I thought about the democratic debate as it happened. The debate was sponsored by Univision, Washington Post, and Facebook. The longest discussion was on immigration. But I don’t think it moved anywhere. The truth is that comprehensive immigration reform is a major democratic party platform, and neither candidate will abandon it. So despite all the rhetoric, there isn’t much daylight between the two.

The debate then moved to a long back and forth about the bank bailouts and Wall St. Amidst the usual arguments that the candidates have had over the last 7 debates or so, the moderator wanted to know what really Sanders’ problem was with Clinton giving paid speeches to Wall St.? Does he believe that she said something in private that would compromise her objectivity as president? His answer was yes (although he didn’t say the word). To prove otherwise, he said, she should release her transcripts of all her speeches, especially because they were heavily paid for. I think Sanders’ point here is more about Clinton, the person, than it is about policy. The essence of his argument is, she got paid by Wall St., so she cannot be objective about them.

I find this a great political strategy on Sanders’ part, because his point has stuck, and Clinton has never really been able to shake it off. But philosophically, I don’t think it has merit. By Sanders’ argument then, because some labor unions endorse Sanders, could the argument be made that he cannot be objective about them? Can it be said that he will always side with a union’s position no matter what the situation? As another example, let us consider the case of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 (“The Wall Street Bailout”) that Sanders likes to talk about. The bailout included relief both for Wall St. and for automakers. Sanders says he opposed the bill because it bailed out Wall St., but that he supports rescuing the auto industry. But if he is right to claim that Clinton voted for the bill because she is married to the interests of Wall St., then it should be fair for Clinton to claim that Sanders opposed the auto bailout. Moreover, does his vote not mean that opposing Wall St. was a greater priority for Sanders than saving the auto industry and its jobs? And objectively, isn’t saving the auto industry corporate welfare, something Sanders likes saying he opposes? In reality, lending transactions (credit) that banks mediate are perhaps the most important mechanism that runs the global economy. Yes, the risky and predatory lending practices of banks were a major underlying factor behind the recession. But the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was not about rewarding banks. It was about stabilizing the global economy. I agree with Sanders’ cause that the behavior of Wall St. banks brought about the biggest economic collapse in a generation. However, I also feel that the way Sanders spins the issue is a mischaracterization of events. Clinton’s vote for the bill was still the responsible thing to do.

Finally, there was some back and forth between the candidates about college tuition and health care. In the midst of this, the moderator asked Clinton what economic policies she would pursue to specifically help Latinos? Clinton listed some general policies that would help all Americans but even when pressed, she could not come up with something specific that would help Latinos. Sanders talked about education and his youth employment program, but again this was also general. However, I thought that it was telling that neither candidate really had a good answer. Another moment I thought was revealing was when the candidates were asked about how they would accomplish anything on climate change, given republican opposition. I hated Sanders’ answer that it needs a political revolution. There is no political revolution that is happening …and if it is happening, it is not happening among the democrats! But Clinton too stuttered her way through what I thought was an unconvincing answer about how she could get some sort of a bipartisan consensus. To be blunt, for all the talk about helping Main St. and climate change, neither candidate had anything concrete in terms of solutions.

Then the topic again turned towards American relations with Latin America, and the moderator pulled out a video of Sanders from 1985. Thats when I yawned and turned the TV off. As far as the optics go, I think Sanders fared better than Clinton. He seemed to have more speaking time (it felt that way), and I thought she missed several opportunities to make relevant points against Sanders’ positions. But overall, I thought that the outcome will depend largely on Clinton’s ground game on March 15. It is still her election to lose.

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A collective responsibility

Every election has a dominant issue. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, and Obamacare were some of the top issues in 2008 and 2012. While I wait for the dominant themes of this election cycle to crystallize, I also feel that none of these issues will be resolved if the dysfunction in Washington is not fixed first.

The one thing everybody agrees on is that “Washington is broken“. The approval rating of congress has rarely topped 25% in almost five years. Not surprisingly, everyone that is running for president claims either to be an “outsider” or that special insider that is in Washington, but not of it. But if politicians are to blame for the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, what about the voters that elect these politicians? Aren’t they also responsible?

To me, the dysfunction in Washington is an extension of the deeply polarized views of the voters. The main consequence of this polarization is the creation of an elected class that will not agree on anything, and therefore will accomplish nothing. Effective government in the United States requires putting one’s agenda in the context of the size of the mandate they receive. For instance, the margin of Obama’s victory in 2012 was 51% to 47%.  In theory, there are at least two solutions for implementing such a mandate: (1) Let the majority rule. In other words, if a party wins the election, let them vigorously implement their agenda. This is accomplished by letting all bills pass on a simple majority basis; or (2) Pass bills through constructive negotiation with the minority, given that the minority still represents a very significant portion of the population.

In this regard, the constitution of government in the United States clearly favors the second option. For instance, power in the government is distributed between congress and the president, and in many instances, the party that controls the presidency is distinct from that which controls the majority in congress. Additionally, the constitution provides important protections for the rights of the minority, especially in the senate. One would expect that these checks and balances would induce politicians to collaborate and work vigorously towards reaching a consensus. Alas, politicians today have chosen stalemate over consensus, and it is my opinion that the process by which voters select these elected representatives is a major contributing factor to the dysfunction in Washington.

As an example, let us consider how presidential candidates are selected these days. Both democrats and republicans want their candidates to pass a series of litmus tests to establish the purity of their liberal or conservative ideologies, respectively. Of course, each side feels that moral clarity exists solely in their viewpoint, and so they seek the candidate that will most strongly reflect their principles. But in this sea of ideologues, no one ever talks about how they will implement their agenda. Just look at the tax plans of the candidates that are generating the most excitement among conservatives and liberals. On the right, we have Donald Trump’s plan, whose tax cuts will reduce federal revenues by $9.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Unless he pairs these tax cuts with very large (read impossible) spending cuts, his plans would lead to record budget deficits and increase the national debt by $11.5 trillion in the first decade alone. Meanwhile, on the left, we have Bernie Sanders, whose plans will raise taxes and increase government revenue by a whopping $15.3 trillion over the next decade alone. This increased revenue will not be used to pay down the national debt, but rather finance a series of government programs. Obviously, both plans will be dead on arrival. Currently, it is estimated that republicans will retain their majority in the house of representatives. The fate of the senate is less clear, but in the end, it wouldn’t matter anyway. For instance, even if republicans retain the senate, democrats will surely filibuster any plan to cut taxes on wealthy individuals. Similarly, even if democrats win the House and senate majorities, republicans will surely filibuster any tax increases, let alone the massive ones Sanders is proposing to help finance new government programs. With their tax plans suspended, how will these ideologues meet the promises they made to the voters? They will not. And they are being irresponsible, if not dishonest, when they claim that they can deliver on their promises, if elected.

 

In summary, I feel that a major factor underlying the dysfunction in Washington is the triumph of ideology over responsibility. While the electorate hopes for a productive government, it also selects candidates based more on ideological purity than their ability to lead and establish consensus. Our collective responsibility should be to reject candidates with outlandish, divisive, and close-minded proposals, and select those whose plans have the room to maneuver, work collaboratively, and ensure progress through consensus. Only then can we hope to elect effective governments that can truly fulfill their mandates.