Biden vs. Bernie

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks during the Democratic presidential debate in Washington, D.C., March 15, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Ladies and gentlemen, some thoughts on the debate, as the debate was unfolding.

• In the 1980 presidential debate — there was just one that year — Reagan startled Carter by going over to shake his hand. It was seen to be effective, for Reagan. Thereafter, one question after a debate was, “Who won the handshake?” Who strode to initiate the handshake, etc.?

Well, in this corona age, there was no handshake.

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• Did I say there was one presidential debate in 1980? Well, junkies will know that there were two. But the president, Carter, participated only in the second. The first was between Reagan and Anderson, alone.

• I know that we’re supposed to “dunk on” analogies to war. (We’re supposed to dunk on everything.) Nothing is like war — except war — and the coronavirus ain’t war. I don’t care. I think the analogy is apt and useful, in many ways.

• Fundamentally, Bernie calls for an all-protecting, all-embracing government. I have a feeling that this appeals to a great many. That it is seductive (in almost every time and place).

• For an old coot, Bernie is amazingly crisp and disciplined. He is a very good talker — un-muddy. From my point of view, of course, he is crystal clear in his political and philosophical error.

• Bernie says, in effect, that the current crisis shows the need for socialism. I say, we are damn lucky to live in a free-market society (basically). Man’s innovation can come in handy, can’t it?

• I can’t believe my ears. Biden is defending the Wall Street bailout. I thought this was impossible, in today’s politics — when populism rules, left and right. Biden is quite right, however. Without that bailout, the United States would have been in far worse shape.

It’s not like the Richie Riches would have been punished. The entire country would have been.

• On immigration, Biden paints restrictionists with a broad brush. He equates them with “xenophobes.” This is “sheer demagoguery,” as Reagan would say. And defamation.

Are there xenophobes and nativists among restrictionists? Are there people who are flat-out anti-immigrant and anti-immigration? Of course. But that brush is too broad, and condemnable.

What would Biden say of, for example, Barbara Jordan? Or Bill Clinton? Or, indeed, much of the Democratic party, until recently? When I was coming of age, it was Democrats who said, “They’re taking our jobs and depressing our wages,” and Republicans who were quoting Emma Lazarus.

(The centennial of the Statue of Liberty — in 1986, presided over by Reagan — was something.)

• Biden taps his head with his fist and says “Knock on wood.” A charming old gesture. Endearing, at least to me.

• Whenever Biden is asked about Bernie’s revolution, he says something like this: “We got immediate problems to work out. We’ve got to be practical. You can’t get Bernie’s program passed.” He never disagrees with it fundamentally. He never says, “America is a good country. We already had our revolution. We have the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Let’s keep all that, shall we? And make improvements where we should.”

I wish he would talk like that . . .

• Bernie and Biden both charge that Republicans are for smaller government. Would that it were so . . .

• Bernie accuses Biden of having been for Simpson-Bowles. May I quote from a piece of mine on Mitch Daniels, a onetime Reagan aide, a onetime governor of Indiana, and a now-time president of Purdue University? I sat down with him last November.

I say to him, “Was Simpson-Bowles a good idea?” “Yes,” he says, emphatically, before I can get the complete sentence out of my mouth. He continues, “Was it the very best idea? No, because I don’t know what that is, and I’m sure there were other things that I might have done, or that someone else might have done, but . . .” “Was it better than what we’re doing now?” I interject. “Oh, my gosh,” says Daniels — yes.

“Simpson-Bowles” is a shorthand way of referring to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Obama in 2010, and chaired by Alan Simpson, the Republican former senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, the Democratic politician and university president from North Carolina who had been a Bill Clinton chief of staff. When their report came out, it was promptly rejected by both sides, Republican and Democratic.

This rejection was “such a wrong turn,” Daniels says. “We had a president who commissioned the report and walked away from it at the end, and I think that was such a shame. Erskine Bowles still has the best single sentence about the fix we’re in: ‘We face the most predictable economic crisis in history’ — meaning, it’s all there in the arithmetic.”

And talk about a Democratic Nixon, potentially: Barack Obama had “great field position,” says Daniels. He was in a position to say, “Look, we would rather we didn’t have to make some of these changes, but we need to do it in the interest of our children, in the interest of our future” — but no.

• Hmmm. If I were Biden, I’d act like I was the nominee already and take it to Trump, paying only slight attention to Bernie. But he is tit-for-tatting with Bernie.

• On Twitter, Trump is always writing billets doux to Bernie. In debate, Bernie does not reciprocate — at all.

• Is it too much to ask that a Democratic candidate say a decent word for the American energy renaissance, leading to independence from Middle East oil? It appears so, yes.

• Biden is trying to out-abortion Kate Michelman (or whoever your abortion leader of choice is). (“Choice”!) I wonder what his private view is, if he has one.

• As I see it, Biden can afford to show a little spine on border control and illegal immigration. By the evidence, however, he sees it differently . . .

• How to put this delicately? I won’t. Biden seems to me pretty un-gaga tonight. I’m not sure the #BidenSenile line will work, if he keeps this up.

• Frankly, I doubted he could hack a two-hour debate, one on one. I thought such a debate would leave him too much time to talk — and that he would not be able to fill the time. That he would be a stumbling mess. I thought he was better off hidden amid eight or ten candidates. But, you know? He’s hacking it . . .

• Biden says that, when he and Obama first met the joint chiefs, the chiefs told them that the No. 1 threat was climate change. Really? Not Iran or North Korea?

• I know that Bernie and Biden are the same age. But I gotta say, it’s like Biden is being lectured by his socialist grandfather (outta Brooklyn).

• Bernie talks about the pulling of millions and millions of Chinese out of dire poverty. I think of Thomas Sowell — with whom I sat down in 2011. Let me quote (from my resulting piece):

What about the rise of China? Sowell says that, from a “humanitarian” point of view, it’s a wonderful thing. In the past, millions of Chinese starved to death. “I grew up in an era when, if you didn’t eat your food, your mother would say, ‘There are children starving in China.’” Now it has been determined that “something like a fourth of Chinese adults are overweight, which was utterly unthinkable at one time. So, that’s really a great humanitarian story.” The rise of China militarily is something else. “I think it’s just criminal — criminal negligence at a minimum — that the Obama administration is cutting back the American military while the Chinese are going full blast ahead,” while the North Koreans are playing games with nukes, and while the Iranians are on the verge of acquiring them.

• Biden is so much better — a hundred times better — when he is not trying to rush. Rushing jumbles him all up.

• In 1980, Reagan committed to naming the first female Supreme Court justice. Biden has committed to naming the first African-American woman to the Court. Now he commits to naming a woman as his running mate.

(Mondale did it first, followed by McCain.)

(By the way, did you see Palin on that TV show the other night, singing — or whatever — “Baby Got Back”? I was thinking end times.)

• All the pros will tell you that running mates mean next to nothing. (A big exception was 1960 — Kennedy-Johnson.) But Biden’s choice? Very important (in view of his age, etc.).

• So, was that the last presidential debate until the first Trump-Biden one?

Catch you later . . .

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