a blog, newsletter, and kaleidoscope notebook about politics, the media, and culture
by tom bunting, a Real Journalist

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In night two of CNN’s debates, a search for the Democrats’ future and the unbearable weight of the past

August 1, 2019 3:10 AM
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In night two of CNN’s debates, a search for the Democrats’ future and the unbearable weight of the past

Joe Biden hits Corey Booker for allowing Newark’s horrific police force to continue discriminatory policies. Booker blasts him for supporting the infamously disastrous crime bill. Tulsi Gabbard goes after Kamala Harris for attempting to withhold evidence in a trail while she was Attorney General; Harris would later hammer her on past comments that seemed to support Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. De Blasio tries to go after everyone, but isn’t he the guy whose public housing got kids sick with lead poisoning? 

This was an ugly, angry debate, one that felt like less of a battle over the Democrats’ future—like the first night—and more like a vindictive grudge match over who did the best opposition research. Spoiler alert: they all did pretty good opposition research. There’s a lot of dirt on everyone. 

What was so striking about this sludge of a contest was how little we heard about the future. The most substantive policy debate was a protracted argument between Harris and Biden on their health care plans, which as far as I could tell ultimately boiled down to Harris having a slightly more proactive enrollment mechanism. (Both include a public option and both retain private insurance, although Harris’ plan would involve much stricter regulation.) We learned everyone on stage dislikes Donald Trump, and that most think that defeating him is not enough. Everything else—immigration, foreign policy, trade, criminal justice—all ultimately devolved into mudslinging over records. There were plenty of fights on night one, but they ultimately felt like exhilarating arguments over where the party was going. Tonight felt like a highlight reel of horrible decisions made by people who haven’t bothered to try and atone for their past. 

You could blame this on Biden, the Vice President is running on essentially a nostalgia play for the increasingly divisive Obama years, and has been in office long enough to amass a library of bad takes and legislative missteps. Biden is a walking liability for attacks; you can put the worst of Obama’s record on him and the worst of his own record. But no one is clean: Booker did do an incredibly poor job managing his police department (and I can’t wait for someone to ask him about his views on Bain Capital!), Kamala Harris was a ruthless and cruel Attorney General and prosecutor with a goldmine of horrific legal battles. When presented with their mistakes, everyone deflected or worse; rather than apologize, express sympathy for those who their actions harmed, or explain how they’ve changed their mind, many simply pivoted to another attack. No one on stage seemed to be able to grapple with their own past in a way that felt satisfactory or honest, and therefore none of their own offenses landed with the impact they would if delivered by someone with a cleaner record. 

Maybe this is inevitable. Politics is a dark art and a large part of it is mudslinging. It seems near impossible to find someone power-hungry or narcissistic enough to be willing to run for President who hasn’t fucked a bunch of people over at some point. But contrast tonight with last night; a spirited and downright encouraging progressive takeover led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, two figures who (while divisive in their own rights) have proved remarkably consistent in their beliefs and actions throughout their career in politics. They feel like the people to lead us into the next generation, partially because they simply don’t seem to carry the past as heavily on their shoulders as the others. Hell, you could even make an argument for the near-blank slates like Beto or Castro or Gillibrand or Mayor Pete! At least they haven’t actively ruined anyone’s life! (Maybe never mind on Mayor Pete, on second thought.) 

This primary ultimately seems like a referendum on the last twenty years of Democratic politics and a choice of what the party wants its future to be. So far, the most effective messengers have been those who have represented progressive values consistently and done the least number of fucked things in their careers in public service. That’s not Harris, that’s not Booker, that’s not Biden, and that’s not Gabbard or De Blasio, but you probably weren’t considering those two anyway. 

We need new voices, or at the very least we need people who don’t represent the mistakes, injustices, and flaws of the Democratic Party of the past. Try as they might to run away from their past, few on stage tonight can honestly say they weren’t part of the problem.