September 11, 2019

A Different Kind of Presidential Candidate Debate

With yet another debate among Democratic presidential candidates nearly upon us, now is a good time to consider the value of these events and whether the present format is serving us well.

Aside from anything that happens on camera, a candidate benefits from simply being in a debate, particularly in the early stages of the campaign. Whereas a candidate like Joe Biden is well-known, a candidate such as Julián Castro is less familiar to the electorate and benefits substantially from the exposure afforded by a spot on the stage. Candidates, such as Tulsi Gabbard, who were cut from the pack this time, miss an opportunity to re-introduce themselves and put their policies before the public. Of course, participation in a debate is not a guaranteed benefit. Who can forget Rick Perry’s failure to remember the three cabinet departments he wanted to get rid of? (Ironically, of course, he now heads one of those.)

What we have come to call a debate is really not a debate in the formal sense, and the more people there are on the stage the less debate-like it becomes. With ten “debaters,” there is little opportunity for sustained disputation, and, unless moderators aggressively enforce rules of who can speak when, the event can quickly become a verbal free-for-all. Candidates trailing in the polls have every incentive to speak out-of-turn knowing, realistically, that they will be called on by the moderators less frequently than the more popular participants.

Moderators have conflicting objectives. They want to be (or at least seem to be) fair to everyone; they want to explore issues that have been raised in the campaign; and they want to produce engaging television. Should they try to give everyone equal time, knowing full well that some of the hopefuls have no chance of becoming their party’s nominee? And who wants to hear from the least popular candidate as much as from the front-runner anyway? Both to explore issues and to generate lively discussion, moderators have a tendency to play let’s-you-and-him (or her)-fight by asking participants to critique the policies of a particular rival. This can make for exciting television, but it often exaggerates the differences between candidates and leaves some participants out of the discussion.

Particularly at this point in the campaign, the usual debate format encourages fights over minutiae among people who largely agree with one another, and it rewards clever bons mots created in advance specially for the occasion. Debates (and the primary campaign generally) artificially encourage articulation of policies that are markedly different from (and, implicitly, better than) those of other candidates. Politicians generally, not only Donald Trump, are loath to admit to either having made a mistake or to having found another’s idea to be an improvement on the politician’s own.

Debates can be enhanced in small ways. Four years ago, I offered some possible improvements. (See “Suggestions for Presidential Debates.”)  But perhaps what we need is something quite different, at least during the early presidential primary season. I offer a debate-alternative below and suggest why I think it would be a helpful addition to our political toolbox. Others may have even better ideas. I do think we need better ideas!

Let’s face it; debating skills (or whatever skills are needed for what we call debates) are not an important skill required of the chief executive. In fact, skills needed to become president, particularly those observable to voters, are not necessarily the most important skills needed to be president. Candidates can exhibit more important presidential skills and give voters a better sense of just who they are by radically changing the nature of intra-party debates.

Here is my suggested format: Seat (not stand) the candidates in a semi-circle faced by the moderator. There should be no studio audience. Candidates are not allowed to have notes. The moderator will have chosen in advance a set of problems (not solutions) to discuss and an amount of time to be devoted to each problem. Although candidates could be given a problem list ahead of time, this is likely unnecessary, as the important issues facing the nation should be obvious. A surprise topic or two might usefully contribute to the program, however. Candidates are expected to discuss—this could mean arguing about—the nature and causes of the problem, as well as possible approaches to ameliorating it. Other duties of the moderator are the following:

  • Call on participants based on raised hands.
  • Without imposing a fixed time limit on contributions, ensure that no one dominates the discussion.
  • Keep the discussion on topic.
  • Do not allow discussion of measures to deal with the problem until a substantial consensus is reached about the nature and causes of the problem.
  • Insofar as it’s possible, give everyone who wants to speak an equal opportunity to do so.
  • Move on to the next topic when the time for the current one expires, irrespective of the state of the discussion. (The moderator should avoid interrupting a speaker if possible.)
 The event could begin with brief statements by the candidates without limit on what they may say. It should end with statements responding to the experience of what has just occurred.

This format has a number of advantages over the conventional one:

  • It provides a sense of how candidates approach problems and make decisions, important presidential skills.
  • It is likely to provide a better sense of candidates’ temperaments than does the usual high-pressure debate, with its need to upstage particular rivals.
  • It provides a better sense of candidates’ philosophical orientation.
  • It educates the audience about the issues of the day, something that provides insight into proposed policies.
  • To the degree that candidates put forth a plan devised in advance, they are forced to “show their work,” i.e., explain explicitly how their “solution” relates to their understanding of the problem.
  • It provides a sense of where the party itself stands and of the distribution of views within the party. The format encourages consensus, rather than uniqueness of ideas, offering a strong sense of the party. (Commentators have complained that people no longer know what the Democratic Party stands for.)
  • Ultimately, it should help candidates hone their proposals, based on ideas from other candidates.
This format is not perfect. For example, it relies on candidates themselves to criticize ideas that may not be implementable. (In the debates so far, participants have put forward many programs that would require the coöperation of Congress. These are unlikely to come to pass unless the Democratic Party achieves control of the Senate, in 2022, if not 2020.)

Debates later in the campaign season should probably be some variation of the conventional events.

Evidence suggests that, for many people, policy positions are less important than character, the 2016 election notwithstanding. My modified debate scheme may be more helpful to voters for whom that is true.

September 6, 2019

Arguing Against an Anti-abortion Argument

In a story titled “Plan C,” by Nona Liss-Schultz, in the current issue of Mother Jones, Alabama State Senator Clyde Chambliss is quoted as saying, “When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb, it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.” That being a religious argument, of course, it is hardly a legitimate basis for legislation. There is nothing wrong with legislators taking religious concerns into account, however. But this argument is crazy even as a religious argument.

Chambliss’s reasoning can easily lead to a sense of powerlessness and a willingness to accept whatever fortune or tragedy comes our way. But fatalism is not a particularly useful philosophy, and a Christianity that rejects free will must necessarily reject salvation as well. I don’t think I exaggerate by paraphrasing Chambliss’s statement as don’t fuck with God’s plan.

If we are to accept a pregnancy as a God-given event not properly subject to human intervention, what other “gifts” of God should receive similar consideration? How about breast cancer? Muscular dystrophy? Polio? Swine flu? Are we to eschew medicine entirely? Why stop at medicine. Aren’t floods “acts of God?” Is it moral to try to avoid them, say, by building levies? You get my point.

But, back to the pregnancy thing. You may choose to think of pregnancy as an act of God, but, let’s face it, two people are directly responsible for it. Parents—willing or not—need to take responsibility for a largely avoidable event, not blame it on God. If the pregnancy was a human “mistake,” why should we prohibit a human correction?

On the other hand, contracting breast cancer or muscular dystrophy is, as far as we know,  a circumstance over which we have no control. Surely, such medical tragedies are more easily seen as God’s work than pregnancy. Is it “not our place as human beings” to intervene? Why is the case for non-intervention regarding pregnancy stronger than that for breast cancer?

Let’s face it, Chambliss, like so many “pro-life” partisans, abhor abortions for their own reasons, and they are willing to advance any argument, however illogical or inconsistent, to try to make abortions illegal. Their arguments, however crazy, must always be countered.

September 4, 2019

Happy Summer Day

Happy Summer Day
by Lionel Deimel

An ordinary drive across town
Past the usual scenery with its familiar flagpoles
Fronting fire station, bank, courthouse, high school
Flying red, white, and blue banners
Emblazoned against a cloudless azure sky
Below their bold silver finials
Evincing pride in a great nation
And announcing a happy day across the land:
There were no mass shootings yesterday.


The above poem is a second draft. I’m not sure if I will revise it further.

It seems that flags fly at half-staff frequently these days. As I drive past them, I sometimes have to ask why they are not flying high that particular day. Often, however, I know the flags are at half-staff in acknowledgment of a mass shooting somewhere in the country. These were not always so common.

August 30, 2019

A Long-Awaited Movie Arrives

I am a big fan of the late Shirley Jackson. I discovered her writing on my own in my early college years. After reading her infamous short story The Lottery, I went on to explore her novels and was particularly taken by her last novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Like much of Jackson’s writing, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a bit strange. It involves the surviving members of a wealthy family living in a large estate in a small town. The story is told from the point of view of 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood, Merricat, who lives with her older sister Constance and uncle Julian. Other members of the family were killed by ingesting arsenic-laced sugar six years earlier, an incident for which Constance was tried and acquited. As a result, Constance refuses to leave the grounds, and Merricat is responsible for obtaining groceries and library books from the town. (Uncle Julian is confined to a wheelchair.) Townsfolk were apparently hostile to the Blackwood family even before the poisoning, an attitude intensified by the perception that Constance got away with murder. Merricat is also responsible, in her mind, at least, for protecting the family through magic. The girl is odd. In fact, all three inhabitants of the Blackwood “castle” are odd, perhaps downright crazy.

Into this peculiar family, comes, unbidden, Cousin Charles, whose motives Merricat rightly suspects. Lest I fully reveal the plot, suffice it to say that Charles ultimately brings tragedy to the family, which, reduced by the death of Uncle Julian, is determined, at the end of the novel, to carry on.

Ever since I read and reread the Jackson novel, I have wished for it to be turned into a movie. About a decade ago, there was an announcement that this was actually going to happen. Year after year, hints of progress surfaced, but no film appeared. It seemed unlikely that the novel would become a blockbuster movie, but I wanted to see the cinematic product even if it turned out to be a bad film. Finally, nearly ago, We Have Always Lived in the Castle became an actual movie. For months, however, I searched in vain for it. It was unlikely that it would show up in the local theater. It was not on Netflix; it was not on Amazon; it was not on television. I kept looking, and I recently found it in a Red Box kiosk. It was checked out from the kiosk where I first saw it, but I was able to obtain the DVD from another Red Box dispenser a few days later.

The wait was worth it. The movie, though not perfect—it contains a few stupid missteps—is wonderful. It captures and intensifies the weirdness of Jackson’s novel without deviating from its bizarre story. (You can find details about the movie on Wikipedia, but, if you have yet to read the book or see the movie, skip the plot summary.) Ironically, I just learned that We Have Always Lived in the Castle will be available on Netflix on September 14, nearly a year after its premiere at the LA Film Festival. I will watch it again and recommend it to you as well.

August 21, 2019

Please, Not Joe Biden

I am distressed that Joe Biden continues to lead the polls of Democratic presidential candidates. His popularity is the product of widespread name recognition and his association with Barack Obama. But, despite what many maintain, there is no compelling reason to believe that Biden’s present popularity necessarily translates into sure-fire electability.

Any candidate selected by the Democratic Party will achieve strong name recognition soon enough. That person could have attributes Biden does not possess—youthfulness comes immediately to mind—and could lack some of Biden’s liabilities, such as his checkered legislative record.

Biden is certainly not as sharp as he once was—though garbled utterances are something of a Biden tradition—and he may not have sufficient wit to counter Trump’s bizarre, fact-free debating style.

I continue to hope for an exciting Democratic nominee younger than the likes of Biden, Sanders, and Warren. I will work for whoever is the Democratic candidate, of course, but, if the candidate is Biden, it will be difficult for me to conjure up genuine enthusiasm for the party’s standard-bearer other than as a person who is not Trump.

August 5, 2019

Making Credible Campaign Promises

The promises made by Democratic presidential candidates can be exhilarating: free college tuition, affordable health care for all, higher minimum wage, forgiveness of college loans, guaranteed monthly income. Virtually all the proffered policies are programs that cannot be implemented by the president alone, however. They would all require congressional action. That action is unlikely even were the Democrats able to retake the Senate.

This is not to say that Democrats should forego big ideas. Big ideas, even if only aspirational, can inspire voters. What cannot be accomplished today may be possible tomorrow. As Senator Elizabeth Warren asked, why run for president just to talk about what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for?

Democrats do run the risk of seeming unrealistic and open to the charge of being socialist if nothing they propose appears practical in the foreseeable future. Candidates can increase their appeal in the minds of voters, however, by also (1) talking about their philosophical approach to governing and to particular problems, (2) emphasizing their qualifications for office, (3) exhibiting attractive personal attributes, and (4) telling people what they most certainly will be able to do once they are in the Oval Office.

This last item is especially important in that it allows the candidates to appear thoughtful and realistic, while at the same time implicitly attacking the incumbent. Possible campaign promises of this sort might include any of the following, in no particular order:

  1. Never use Twitter to announce policy, and use it only occasionally to call attention to conventional policy documents, requests for comment, etc.
  2. Commit to holding regular press conferences at least monthly.
  3. Propose cabinet members with demonstrable and relevant expertise, personal integrity, and no significant real or apparent conflicts of interest.
  4. Begin a process of evaluating regulations eliminated or weakened by the current administration, with the understanding that regulations are needed for the just and effective running of our society.
  5. Nominate judges having a mainstream judicial philosophy.
  6. Visit leaders of allied nations early in the presidency to reassure our allies that the United States is a reliable partner.
  7. Halt arm sales to Saudi Arabia pending improvement in that country’s human rights record.
  8. Halt financial support to Israel if that nation will not suspend the building of new settlements and the destruction of Palestinian dwellings.
  9. Declare that Israel and the Palestinians can either negotiate an acceptable two-state solution or Israel must incorporate Palestinian territories into the nation, make Palestinians citizens with rights equal to those of Jews, and denounce the concept of Israel as a Jewish state.
  10. Commit the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change and become a leader in seeking to avoid a global climate catastrophe.
  11. Remove all tariffs imposed by President Trump and seek legislation to prevent future presidents from enacting tariffs without congressional approval.
  12. Commit to establishing multilateral trade agreements to facilitate free trade in East Asia and elsewhere.
  13. Declare our acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea and our peaceful intentions toward that country, while maintaining economic sanctions as long as the DPRK maintains an abysmal human rights record.
  14. Begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, with the understanding that military action will be taken against any attempt to use that country as a base for terrorist training.
  15. Propose a budget that increases money for NASA and regulatory agencies and reduces money for the military.
  16. Restore full diplomatic relations and all financial and travel restrictions on Cuba.
  17. Negotiate disputes with China without the use of tariffs that hurt China but hurt the U.S. more.
  18. Seek an agreement with Iran that will defuse tensions and provide Iran some relief from economic sanctions.
  19. Seek new arms control agreements with an expanded set of nations, including China and Iran.
  20. Offer financial and technical help to Central American countries from which refugees have been streaming.
The above list could easily be made longer, and I have no doubt that items in the list could be attacked by people both on the left and the right. The point is simply that there are things that a president actually has direct control of and can make credible promises about.

Americans would be better served by Democratic candidates arguing about the points listed above and similar matters than the arcane and largely incomprehensible discussions we have been subjected to regarding how the nation might better deliver health care.

Are any of the candidates listening?

July 25, 2019

Don’t Impeach Trump

Robert Muller’s appearance on Capitol Hill yesterday has once more intensified the debate as to whether the House of Representatives—which is to say, the House Democrats—should begin impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.

Like so many citizens, my thoughts on this topic have run hot and cold. I have no doubt that Trump deserves to be impeached, an opinion I have held almost since his first day in office. Without hesitation, I signed on to Tom Steyer’s petition to initiate impeachment proceedings. On the other hand, Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance to go down that road is informed by unquestionable wisdom, even though I have no doubt that the Speaker of the House shares my view that Trump has earned removal from office. Those who argue that the Constitution demands action by the House, irrespective of whether the president can actually be cashiered, have a point that is difficult to ignore. Given the resistance of Trump supporters to facts concerning the president’s unfitness for office, though, one has to worry that a formal impeachment inquiry would only strengthen Trump’s standing in the polls.

The usual argument for impeachment asserts that, even if the president is not convicted by the Senate, the hearings themselves will have the effect of tilting public opinion against the president, thereby boosting the electoral prospects of the Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. This is a questionable concept, as the Mueller Report has not created the outrage it surely should have. It remains to be seen whether Mueller’s testimony yesterday proves more compelling. The House is investigating matters not covered by the Mueller investigation, however, and those efforts may prove more effective in moving public opinion. Were there to be a groundswell of pro-impeachment sentiment in the country, perhaps not even the Mitch McConnell-dominated Senate could resist the public outrage.

One brief answer given by Mueller, however, has convinced me that we should not now nor in the future impeach Donald Trump. Mueller noted that the president could be indicted once he is out of office and the Justice Department’s anti-democratic policy against indicting a sitting president no longer applies. The statute of limitations for obstruction of justice, for example, is five years. I suspect that many more laws, especially financial ones, have been committed by our current president both in and out of office.

But don’t we need to remove Trump as soon as possible, before he can do even more damage to the Republic? Well, yes. But suppose that Trump was both impeached and convicted. Wise Democrats have argued that a Mike Pense presidency, though undesirable, could hardly be worse than a Trump presidency. That’s certainly true, though a President Pense would represent a different sort of calamity.

What would President Pense do on his first day in office? I am convinced that he would pardon Trump for all past and future crimes, citing the pardon of Richard Nixon and the need to “heal” the country. Such a result would be tragic. I want Trump to go to prison, and I eagerly look forward to his perp walk. If that cannot come before 2021, so be it. It will be worth waiting for.

Let House Democrats investigate Donald Trump as much as they want. Let them even begin a formal impeachment process. But for the sake of our Democracy, for our children, and for the sake of world peace, do not pass a bill of impeachment. Let’s really punish the son-of-a-bitch.