June 27, 2019
The Democratic debate was a milestone for transgender rights.
When politicians discuss the rights of transgender Americans, they often place an outsized focus on whether trans women should be allowed to use the bathroom in peace. But the issues facing the trans community are far more diverse, and often far more consequential—and during the first Democratic primary debate on Wednesday night, two candidates made an effort to highlight that fact.
While answering a question about abortion rights, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro said that he would expand abortion access for everyone—that is, not just for cisgender women, but for trans men and others who are capable of getting pregnant. “A person’s right to choose is under assault,” he said, consciously using gender-neutral language. “I don’t just believe in reproductive freedom. I believe in reproductive justice. And what that means is just because a woman—or, let’s not also forget someone in the trans community, a trans female—is poor, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose. So, I absolutely would cover the right to have an abortion.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker also placed some focus on the transgender community—specifically on black trans Americans, a group disproportionately affected by hate crime and police brutality. “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the incredibility high rates of murder now,” he said. “We don’t talk enough how many children, about 30 percent of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear.”
The comments represented the first time Democratic candidates spoke about issues facing the trans community on a major debate stage, beyond the context of the bathroom.
This foreign policy debate is brought to you by the Obama era.
In some ways, the Democrats’ manic Wednesday-night debate—packed with candidates and cross-talk—felt current: Considerable time, appropriately, was devoted to discussing immigration, with particular attention paid to recent news of children detained in appalling conditions and a tragic photo of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande. In others—for example the scant airtime devoted to Donald Trump or climate change—it felt dated.
Foreign policy was another area where, taken out of context, the debate could have been happening four years ago—or even eight. Candidates spent the most time talking about Iran, prompted by a moderator question about whether as president they’d support the United States re-entering into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. (The “deal” from which Trump unilaterally withdrew in May 2018.) “We need to renegotiate and get back into that deal,” Senator Cory Booker said, but “If I have an opportunity to leverage a better deal I’m gonna do it.” It was a sentiment other candidates Wednesday more or less echoed. Senator Amy Klobuchar expressed alarm over Trump’s habit of tweeting war threats (“I don’t think we should conduct foreign policy in our bathrobe at four in the morning”), and Representative Tulsi Gabbard talked about her service in Iraq, pointing out that conflict with Iran “would be far more devastating than anything we ever saw in Iraq.... This would turn into a regional war.”
The only other extended foreign policy exchange of the night concerned Afghanistan. Gabbard and Representative Tim Ryan tangled over the question of troop withdrawal from the home of America’s longest war, and Ryan briefly seemed to suggest the Taliban, rather than Osama bin Laden, attacked the U.S. on 9/11.
This year—2019—has been marked by the biggest trade war so far in the twenty-first century. It has also seen a special-counsel investigation and blockbuster 450-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. And don’t forget the beginnings of a dramatic reevaluation of the alliance with Saudi Arabia. It’s a relationship that has embroiled the U.S. in a disastrous proxy war in Yemen, and one on which President Trump has doubled down with arms sales, despite mounting evidence regarding KSA’s assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet all that—along with China, Russian expansion, and other Gulf State influence on U.S. foreign policy—got very little attention, mentioned only in a rapid-fire round fifteen minutes from closing time, where candidates had to name the “biggest geopolitical threats” to the U.S.
The international implications of climate change were largely ignored, as well. Four candidates did mention “climate change” as the nation’s biggest geopolitical threat during the lightening round, but beyond that, they kept it close to home. Candidates discussed a domestic carbon tax, but had little to say about international pacts like the Paris Agreement, or coordination on readiness for mass conflicts as food and water shortages crop up—that would be addressing a global threat in a global context.
Politics, despite the old saw, doesn’t really stop at the water’s edge. Warming, rising oceans bring that home, but will the presidential hopefuls—and the debate moderators—take it to heart?
Julián Castro was the first debate’s big winner.
If one word summed up Castro’s candidacy thus far, it would be “unlucky.” He was crowded out in the media by two other mayors, one a flavor of the month (Pete Buttigieg) and the other a favorite punching bag (Bill de Blasio). Despite putting out the most comprehensive immigration policy of any of the candidates, he was largely ignored, as much of the policy attention focused on other candidates, particularly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Thus far, he’s shown a knack for influencing the conversation—he was also notably the first candidate to endorse launching impeachment proceedings against President Trump—but hasn’t ever led it. (That’s also, partly, because he’s shown a wonky knack for crucial policies that will never receive substantial media play, like his recently released work on lead exposure.)
No candidate helped their position more than Castro in the first debate. He was certainly helped by its early focus on immigration, although he made the most of his time. Facing Beto O’Rourke, the only other Democrat with a substantial (or, at least, arguably substantial) immigration policy, Castro quickly contrasted their proposals, emphasizing O’Rourke’s failure to decriminalize undocumented border crossings.
While Castro faded a bit on non-immigration issues—particularly on gun control, where he offered something more in line with sloganeering than policy—he was strong on issues like filibuster, climate change, and police reform. It was a reminder that Castro has been one of the policy leaders in the early stage of the Democratic primary. If people didn’t notice before, they will now.
This debate is taking place on Earth 2.
In the first hour of the first Democratic debate, the seemingly infinite number of Democratic presidential candidates on stage covered a lot of ground. They talked immigration and Iran, climate change and antitrust and gun control. Without ever really addressing it, they showed just how far the Democratic Party had shifted to the left over the past decade, with a public option now clearly emerging as the centrist position in health care. They even spoke in two languages!
One thing they didn’t really talk about—at least not directly—was President Trump. He was subtext, always, particularly on immigration and the possibility of war with Iran. But for the most part, his belligerence and incoherence was treated as a point of fact, rather than an unprecedented horror show.
It’s not hard to see who stands to gain from pointedly avoiding Trump on the debate stage. The party’s leadership wants to avoid impeachment proceedings at all costs, and they succeeded in the midterm elections in part because they focused so single-mindedly on issues like health care, rather than the daily barrage of tweets and scandals emanating from the White House.
But there’s also a sense that this debate is taking place in a parallel universe. Trump’s presence in the White House is a major catalyst for many of these crises, but the Democratic candidates thus far have largely avoided confronting it directly. The reluctance to speak his name feels almost mystical, as if saying it will summon his presence—or at least a tweet.
This is Democratic speed dating.
The opening debate is always a “get to know you” debate. That’s especially true of the first of two opening Democratic debates, given that it’s frontloaded with candidates no one knows (Tim Ryan, John Delaney), candidates almost no one knows (Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee, Bill de Blasio, Julián Castro), and candidates already in need of a campaign reset (Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke).
But it’s hard to make an impression when there are nine other people, many of them desperate, on the stage. The general strategy in the opening thirty minutes of the debate is for candidates to talk as fast as they possibly can, guaranteeing that they can maximize their short minute of allotted time. This is, of course, familiar to anyone who’s been in high school debate—a combination of nerves and peacocking, showing the audience just how much they know. This has been exacerbated by the manic opening of the debate, which has touched on issues from climate change to health care to antitrust, without much effort to try to get the candidates to actually talk to each other. (De Blasio, arguably the most desperate on the stage, is the only guy really trying to pick a fight.)
If there’s a byproduct of the pace of the debate so far, it’s that it does showcase just how many ideas the Democratic candidates have on the table. But mostly, it just showcases just how many candidates there are on the stage, and how many of them seem not that different from one another. (I’m looking at you, John Delaney and Tim Ryan.)
Is cruelty a winner?
As the Democrats take the stage for the first debate, I am expecting—hoping, even—that there will be ample outrage over the warehousing of migrant children at the southern border.
The last week or so has seen an uptick in attention—because of the brutality at the Clint facility, because of the drowning deaths in the Rio Grande—on what has been the shame of a nation for most of the Trump administration. Several presidential candidates in Miami will be making the short trip to Homestead, a for-profit shelter for unaccompanied minors. The facility was, it must be said, first opened under Obama, but it was re-opened and doubled in size by Trump to cage hundreds of migrants in their teens.
Today, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar made separate visits there. Neither were allowed inside, but Warren stood on a step ladder and peered over the fence at what she said were kids being marched in lines. She turned to the assemblage of media and supporters and called it “a moral stain inflicted by Donald Trump.”
“Following a policy that can be boiled down to one basic idea—and that is maximizing the pain inflicted on families who flee to the United States to try to build some security and safety in their lives—is fundamentally and morally wrong.”
Warren’s right, of course, and it is refreshing to hear strong condemnations from one of the Dem frontrunners. But then I thought, is that going to matter?
Adam Serwer famously wrote last October that “the cruelty is the point,” that the through line that connects what seems like a chaotic carnival of policy misfires is the joy at inflicting pain on people Trump and his fans see as “other.” That premise has become almost universally accepted by those opposed to this administration and the Republican Party that embraces it—and so, it is likely that many in Miami will try to score points by voicing righteous and rightful outrage at the serial meanness of Team Trump. But is that outrage a winner for the campaign trail?
This question applies to both the primaries—where every Democrat will hopefully be vocally opposed to the Zero Tolerance “policy”—and the general, where the issue energizes the GOP while seeming to enervate Democrats. The last thing you want to do is exhaust your base, after all.
But beyond that: Does Trump’s cruelty engender a real feeling of powerlessness? Is opposing cruelty basically negative campaigning—campaigning without hope, when your best advisers will tell you to close with hope?
June 26, 2019
Welcome to TNR’s coverage of the Democratic debates.
Yes, the debates are upon us, a mere 16 months before voters will cast their ballots to decide whether President Trump should get a second term. In that time, babies will be conceived and born, the earth will orbit the sun and then some, and Democrats will, with any luck, choose a champion from the two dozen candidates running for the nomination. It all begins tonight, with the first of two debates in Miami this week featuring the 20 candidates—ten each round—who qualified to participate by either polling at 1 percent in three surveys or receiving 65,000 individual donations.
The staff of The New Republic will be watching the proceedings, offering running commentary and post-debate analysis, and hopefully answering any questions readers might have. Who’s up, who’s down? Who, if anyone, seems qualified to stall America’s spiraling descent into a fiery wasteland overseen by Trumpian kleptocrats? And who is Eric Swalwell, anyway? Pop by TNR’s Minutes blog at 9 o’clock EST tonight and tomorrow night to find out!