You somehow know that when Donald Trump, our nation’s juvenile lead, sent out his one word tweet—“BORING!”—during the first of the two Democratic presidential debates last week, he probably really was bored. That’s because the candidates were talking about some real policy ideas, for which we know he has the attention span of an intellectually challenged mayfly, the insect who got left behind in third grade.
But his ego also could have led him to believe that NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo would interrupt their coverage of the proceedings and breathlessly report his latest two-syllable typing exercise—you know, the way that back in the 16th century Britain’s official Groom of the King’s Close Stool would closely monitor and assist Henry VIII with his trips to the royal loo.
No such luck, Mr. President. During the live telecast no one mentioned it until after the first debate was over—along with yet another childish tweet from you, this time mindlessly making fun of an audio glitch during the event.
But largely ignored was the dumbest of the pre-debate tweets in which Trump apologized that he wouldn’t be able to live tweet much about the debate because he was “on Air Force One, off to save the Free World!” Dude, you were on your way to the G20 in Japan, not hurtling an asteroid out of Earth’s path, although I’m sure that’s your fantasy when you wear your Superman jammies.
I know, his inane Twitter blasts and the heavy-handed nicknames he hurls at his rivals (“Crazy Bernie,” “Sleepy Joe”) are a diversion from the myriad real treacheries taking place. Just the latest is his attempt to subvert the Supreme Court’s decision on including a U.S. citizenship question in the census by unconstitutionally delaying the count. But it’s worth noting the puerile craziness that fuels his social media if only to contrast it with the men and women running against him and the seriousness of purpose they bring to the upcoming election and each of their potential presidencies.
Across two nights, despite the brief amount of time each received, the Democratic candidates knowledgeably spoke about subjects this president barely appears to understand. He offers simplistic, outmoded, uninformed and cruel solutions, as if his role model is not a noble predecessor like Lincoln, but Simon Legree, the slave-owning villain of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
When you looked across the rows of contenders on the proscenium at the Democratic debates, with a couple of exceptions you saw an array of contenders capable of addressing issues (if often superficially, given the format) from wealth inequality, college debt, immigration, health care and climate change to reproductive rights, the breakup of big tech, criminal justice, guns, and police brutality. (Little, however, on education, infrastructure or the Mueller report.)
Whether you agree with everything they say or not, the Democrats have a deep bench, filled with people capable of sober, rational and empathetic thought—the kind of socially conscious policy wonks we sorely need these days.
By now, you’re awash to the point of drowning with the details about who said what to whom or who conducted themselves best. No need for a blow-by-blow recap here. Briefly, the first night Elizabeth Warren did well, her solid proposals and much vaunted debate skills to the fore. Amy Klobuchar and Julian Castro broke from the pack with solid answers and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee surprised by opening not with his usual climate change riff but with a spirited defense of organized labor, the only one to do so across both nights.
The second evening was the night of the long knives, with interruptions and crosstalk so severe, Kamala Harris wound up interrupting the clamor with a clearly rehearsed but deftly delivered, “Hey, guys. You know what? America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
Direct attacks on Trump were more frequent and potent than the first night (Bernie Sanders: “The American people understand that Trump is a phony, that Trump is a pathological liar and a racist, and then he lied to the American people during his campaign.” Kirsten Gillibrand: “One of the worst things about President Trump that he has done to this country is he has torn apart the moral fabric of who we are.”)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a good night and struck home when he declared, “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that… God would smile on the divisions of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
But the big moment for sure on Thursday was the heated exchange between Harris, the only African American on the stage, and former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden. The issue was his past opposition to federal-imposed busing for integration and his relationship with Senate segregationists in the name of legislative progress. “We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden recently said. “We got things done.”
Harris told him, “I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground. But… it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on segregation of race in this country. And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Biden defended his civil rights record, his support for equal rights legislation, and pointed to his work as Barack Obama’s vice president. “I did not praise racists,” he said. Harris noted that she had been bused as a child in Berkeley, California, and that the federal government must step in at “moments in history where states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
Good night for her, not so good for him.
But for the most part, as Washington Postcolumnist EJ Dionne noted of all the candidates after Night One, “Their swipes at each other, such as they were, were mostly subtle, respectful and substantive. No talk of small hands or low energy. Perhaps that reflects a collective Democratic campaign promise: No more indecency, no more recklessness—and, it is not too much to say, no more idiocy.”
It was notable, too, that the fact checkers, usually as busy when Trump speaks as Lucy and Ethel frantically working alongside that ever faster conveyor belt of chocolates, didn’t have a lot to do; for the most part, the candidates stuck to the truth.
These were spirited discussions of substance, especially on health insurance and the rights of the undocumented, hampered by the number of candidates, the constraining format and the too frequent talking over of one another. But it is, of course, early. As has been pointed out, at this point in the 2016 campaign, Jeb Bush was comfortably at the head of the Republican pack with Donald Trump at a distant one percent.
Yet noxious tweets aside, Donald Trump was very much in the room: who can take him on and rid us of this turbulent fake? And if successful, can the Senate be flipped and put an end to the obstructive scourge of Mitch McConnell?
We have so many problems and face danger all around. Temperatures and tides rise, sabers rattle, glaciers melt, storms within and without batter us. Trump and McConnell have mired us in the ooze. Democrats, drain the swamp. Please.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer forMoyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.