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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  10 More Democrats Debate in Detroit
      •  Fed Cuts Interest Rates
      •  Today's Racism News, Part I
      •  Today's Racism News, Part II
      •  Yet Another GOP House Retirement

10 More Democrats Debate in Detroit

If you are interested in substantive discussion of the issues, then you are probably better off catching a rerun of Tuesday night's debate. The primary theme on Wednesday night, as everyone expected, was mudslinging. This was due substantially to the presence of frontrunner Joe Biden on the stage. However, moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon have some responsibility as well. Many of their questions were crafted to encourage sniping among the candidates, and even when substantive questions were asked, Team CNN often allowed the candidates to veer off course and to deliver non-answer recitations of campaign talking points.

Who helped themselves the most? Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).

Given how far in the basement Booker is right now, it's not like he's going to become a frontrunner overnight. He needs to take baby steps, build some momentum, and make sure he does well enough in polls and in fundraising to remain viable once the Democratic field begins to thin out.

Anyhow, on a night when an awful lot of people were taking shots at Joe Biden, Booker's punches were the most effective. First, because Booker really knows how to turn a phrase. Second, because he managed to find some serious chinks in Biden's armor to exploit. The Senator absolutely leveled the former VP on law enforcement, for example, remarking that, "[I]f you want to compare records—and, frankly, I'm shocked that you do—I am happy to do that." Booker then ran through his bona fides on that subject, while hammering Biden for some of his crime-related votes while in the Senate (e.g., "three strikes"), which left Uncle Joe sputtering. The Senator concluded this response with a pretty smooth takedown: "Mr. Vice President, there's a saying in my community, you're dipping into the Kool-Aid and you don't even know the flavor."

Not surprisingly, Booker was the most searched candidate of the night on Google. He definitely gave his candidacy some momentum, which will be enough to keep him off the bubble for a couple of months. That is a win for him.

Also helping himself, albeit to a lesser extent, was Julián Castro. The former HUD Secretary also landed a few haymakers aimed in Biden's direction. For example, the two were bickering about their respective approaches to immigration policy, with Biden arguing that the current laws on the books are fine and the only problem is the guy enforcing them (i.e., Donald Trump), while Castro took the position that the current laws are clearly open to abuse, and so they need to be rewritten. He earned a long and loud round of applause when he declared, "Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't."

Castro also did a good job of explaining that by "decriminalizing" undocumented immigration, Democrats do not mean they want to throw open the borders, merely that they want it treated as a civil offense rather than a criminal one. Booker handled this issue skillfully as well, as did Andrew Yang and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). The debaters from Tuesday night should watch that portion of the debate and take notes (though that's close to the only portion that's worth their time).

So why do we have Castro's performance ranked below Booker's? Well, Castro wasn't quite as strong as Booker, first of all. Beyond that, however, Debate 2 Castro wasn't as good as Debate 1 Castro, especially given that he made one pretty big mistake (see below). Since his performance in the first debate didn't help him in the polls, it's hard to see how his performance in the second debate will have any effect.

Who helped themselves the least? Gillibrand. Every single candidate on stage on Wednesday night had at least one or two bright, shining moments that they can post to their Twitter accounts for their supporters to "ooh" and "aah" over. That includes Gillibrand. However, she badly needed to give a boost to her flagging campaign, and she most certainly did not do that. She completely disappeared for long stretches of time. When it came time for her to hit Biden (as expected) with charges of sexism, she dropped the ball, stumbling through her criticism and looking down at the podium for much of the time. One had the impression that she was struggling to remember her script. Further, because she telegraphed days before the debate what was coming, Biden was ready for her. His response to the criticism:

I wrote the Violence against Women Act. Lilly Ledbetter. I was deeply involved in making sure the equal pay amendments. I was deeply involved on all these things. I came up with the it's on us proposal to see to it that women were treated more decently on college campuses. You came to Syracuse University with me and said it was wonderful. I'm passionate about the concern making sure women are treated equally. I don't know what's happened except that you're now running for president.

Ouch. Among the members of the in-house audience, it was his best-received line of the night.

Anyone else worth mentioning? Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).

Uncle Joe managed to generate some controversy even before the debate was properly underway. The candidates were announced and walked on stage in order of their polling numbers. That meant that he went first and Harris went second. When they shook hands, Biden said to her: "Go easy on me, kid." Some folks found this a charming way to defuse any potential tensions left over from the first debate. Others thought it was unacceptably condescending for a white man to address a younger woman of color in this way. That included some members of Harris' campaign staff, who quickly took to Twitter to express their displeasure:

The criticism of the line then gave rise to counter-critics who said that this was yet another example of the Democrats shooting themselves in the foot by making politically correct mountains out of molehills. Note that pretty much all of this unfolded before the candidates had even taken their podiums.

The rest of Biden's night produced equally mixed results. On one hand, he was better than in the previous debate, and he probably didn't take too much damage from all the shots fired in his direction. On the other hand, on those infrequent occasions when actual policy questions came up, he didn't do a great job of explaining what he's for. He also fumbled on more than one occasion, repeatedly saying the price tag of Harris' health insurance plan is $3 trillion (when he actually meant $30 trillion), for example, and then delivering a monologue about prescription drugs that was basically incomprehensible. He also said that eight more years of Donald Trump is unacceptable; he clearly meant "eight years" or else "four more years." Normally, a few verbal miscues aren't such a big problem, but when there are questions about whether Biden is up to the rigors of the job or not, this did not help his case.

The former VP's complicated relationship with the legacy of Barack Obama was also on display. On one hand, he wants to run as Barack v2.0, and to take substantial credit for the achievements of that administration (on Wednesday, that included Obamacare and the withdrawal from Iraq). Biden once cut Rudy Giuliani off at the knees, declaring "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and 9/11." One could adapt that line for Biden himself: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb, and Barack Obama."

With that said, Biden does not want to take ownership of Obama-era policies that are out of step with the current Democratic Party. He was mildly critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example. And when Biden was asked if he had advised Obama against deporting so many undocumented immigrants, the former VP refused to answer, saying that he does not share the contents of his private conversations. This came off as a bit weaselly, and Booker called him out on it: "Mr. Vice President, you can't have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can't do it when it's convenient and then dodge it when it's not."

Like Biden, Harris also had a night that was very mixed. The two actually ended up sparring during the very first question of the evening, about healthcare. And she definitely got a few good shots in. However, he gave as well as he got, and took her down a few pegs. For example, later in the evening, he observed that she criticized him for his anti-busing stance during the first debate, but that she herself did little to address school segregation while serving as California's attorney general.

And Biden wasn't the only one who had Harris in his sights. A sizable portion of the healthcare segment of the debate was devoted to the plan she unveiled this week. During that discussion, quite a few of her colleagues poked holes in her plan, and she did not do a great job of responding to their criticisms. Further, throughout the night, Harris was a particular target of...Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). The Congresswoman barely said a word about Biden, but she sent venom in Harris' direction at least three or four times. In short, the Senator learned the hard way that when you're on the rise, it also means the target on your back is getting bigger.

There's one other person we should probably mention: Donald Trump. He wasn't in Michigan, of course, but you can bet your bottom dollar he was watching on TV. He doesn't want people to know that, nor does he want to give any of the Democrats on stage any air, since he prefers to run against Democratic representatives of color (the more liberal they are, the better). On Tuesday, he managed to keep his itchy Twitter finger under control. On Wednesday, however, it got the best of him a few times:

Given how many times he was insulted on Wednesday, this is actually pretty restrained, by his standards. We'll see how well he does during the debates as election season draws nearer.

How did the moderators do? Not well. They made a decision to stick with the same basic list of questions/subjects they used on Tuesday night. Ostensibly, this was done to be "fair," but that meant the Wednesday night folks knew what was coming, which means that their responses aren't really comparable to those of the Tuesday night folks.

There is also much to be criticized about the content of their questions. We've already noted that the primary goal seemed to be to encourage conflict, not to help viewers understand the candidates' policy positions. Beyond that, there was virtually nothing on foreign policy, and (except for a fairly brief discussion of impeachment) nothing on the main headline-generating issues of the last few weeks. It's true that healthcare, immigration, and the environment are important, but there will be plenty of opportunity to address those issues. It might have been nice to hear some discussion of Robert Mueller's testimony, or the President's tweets, or election security.

On top of that, Jake Tapper is probably the least effective questioner among the three moderators, and yet he took the lead role last night, for reasons that were not entirely clear.

Finally, though this is not exactly the moderators' responsibility, there's one other related issue that should be noted. On two occasions, members of the crowd began chants that drowned out the candidates who were speaking. The first came during Booker's opening statement, when he had to pause as some audience members yelled "Fire Pantaleo." That's a reference to the New York police officer who was involved in Eric Garner's death; the chants were actually directed at Mayor Bill de Blasio (D-New York City), but interfered much more substantially with Booker. He tried to take lemons (but not Don Lemon) and make lemonade, using the next commercial break to tweet this:

This has the benefit of "celebrating" democracy, but also of making clear that he's not the one the crowd was jeering.

The other occasion came later, during the debate on immigration, when Biden was interrupted by louder (and longer) chants of "3 million deportations!" Unlike Booker, Biden did not make any lemonade out of this opportunity, however. In any case, while there is certainly some benefit to having a live audience for the debates, if the interruptions cannot be controlled, the DNC may need to rethink that choice.

Issue of the night: Healthcare, which—much like on Tuesday night—got something close to 40 minutes' worth of debate time. As noted, a big chunk of that was devoted to Harris' healthcare proposals, in particular. And the discussion was so scattershot that nobody watching could possibly have learned anything useful.

Snarky line of the night: In his opening statement, Andrew Yang was talking about the numerical realities of the post-industrial economy, and said "We need to do the opposite of much of what we're doing right now, and the opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is already selling "I wrote the damn bill!" t-shirts and bumper stickers; Yang will probably be selling "Asian man who likes math" merch by this afternoon.

The runner-up for this prize, incidentally, came from Gillibrand: "[T]he first thing that I'm going to do when I'm president is I'm going to Clorox the Oval Office."

Non-snarky line of the night: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and many other Democrats, are not willing to move forward with impeachment because they fear it will backfire on them. Castro made an interesting argument about how not impeaching will backfire: "And what's going to happen in the fall of next year, of 2020, if they don't impeach [Trump], is he's going to say, 'You see? You see? The Democrats didn't go after me on impeachment, and you know why? Because I didn't do anything wrong.'"

Castro's prediction is probably right, and yet we've not seen the matter framed in that way.

Reddest meat of the night: Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) takes this honor, with his declaration that "[W]e can no longer allow a white nationalist to be in the White House."

Blunder of the night: Castro wanted to emphasize that he's got real crisis-management experience on his résumé, and so told the crowd: "I was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when Flint had its water crisis. I went to Flint. We did what we could to help folks get water filters." Given that this whole mess is still not 100% resolved, and that it took a long time for any progress to be made, it was not wise for Castro to waltz into Detroit and remind everyone that he was the federal official with the most direct responsibility for addressing the situation. Our guess is he'd like to have that one back.

A little historical perspective: Democrats, including some of the folks on stage Wednesday, have begun referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as "Moscow Mitch." Normally, snotty nicknames are Donald Trump's forte, but he doesn't have a monopoly. That said, it probably isn't a coincidence that the person who actually coined the slur, namely Joe Scarborough, is a former Republican.

"Moscow Mitch" is simple, memorable, and very evocative, quickly reminding voters of the criticism that he places his loyalty to a foreign power over his loyalty to the United States. When officials with the U.S. armed forces wanted to discredit Japanese radio propagandists like Iva Toguri during World War II, they started calling them "Tokyo Rose," and the name stuck. It worked so well, that the gambit was repeated during the Korean War with "Seoul City Sue" and "Pyongyang Sally." And then, during the Vietnam War, there was Hanoi Jane (a.k.a. Jane Fonda). Now the Kentucky Senator is a part of this "proud" tradition; he must be absolutely thrilled to be mentioned in the same breath as Jane Fonda.

A detail that may fly under the radar: We are very interested in the sartorial choices of the candidates, and Gabbard wore a suit that was so bright white that one almost needed to put on sunglasses. This is not all that unusual; as all-white was the preferred "uniform" of the suffrage movement, women politicians commonly wear all white to signal their support for women's rights.

That said, Gabbard did not actually say much about women's issues during the debate. Meanwhile, compare her outfit to Harris':

Tulsi in white, Kamala in black

Given that Gabbard's primary strategy was to attack Harris, one wonders if the Congresswoman was trying to set up a subconscious light/dark and good/evil thing. It's not impossible, since the Senator tweeted a photo of herself preparing for the debate shortly before showtime, so her outfit was not a secret. She also wears black suits a lot, so one could have made a pretty good guess about her plans.

On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? More contentious than Tuesday night's debate, by a fair margin, although not nearly as down and dirty as it will be when one of these folks squares off against Donald Trump. We'll rate it a 6.

On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? As noted, we think it will help Booker some, Castro maybe a little, and that the status quo is going to hold for everyone else. That includes Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), whose sleepy-eyed performance flew under the radar enough that he's the only one of the 10 candidates on stage who has yet to be mentioned in this recap. Anyhow, a little bit of movement for one or two candidates translates to about a 4, we would say.

The bottom line: Roughly 10 not-really-viable candidates just bid their fond farewell to the Democratic debates. That means that the character of the third debate(s) should be pretty different, particularly if the next host (ABC) takes the criticism of CNN's moderators and NBC's moderators to heart.

Tomorrow, as per usual, we'll take a look at how other outlets covered the debates. We'll also wait until then to do our second Q&A of the week, so if you have any debate-related questions, please send them along. (Z)

Fed Cuts Interest Rates

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve Bank—as expected—cut interest rates, dropping them by a quarter of a percent. This move is a little unusual, as interest rates tend to be cut only during recessions and depressions. In fact, the last time they were cut was more than a decade ago, during the Great Recession of the George W. Bush years.

What is going on here? There are three possibilities that suggest themselves. The first is that the Board of Governors may specifically be worried that the money supply is too low, and so they took this move to correct that and to keep the economy humming along. The second is that the Board members agree with those economists who say that the economy is not actually all that strong in general, and they want to try to improve upon the situation. And the third is that Donald Trump has been twisting Chairman Jerome Powell's arm to get him to drop rates, and Powell and his colleagues bowed to the pressure. If it's the latter, that is not great for the long-term efficacy of the Fed, which is supposed to be apolitical. We should eventually find out, since Trump does not think the rate cut was enough, and is already pressing for another reduction. (Z)

Today's Racism News, Part I

That headline is a shame for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there is enough material on the subject for two different items. In any case, Donald Trump continued to double- and triple-down on his racist anti-Baltimore tweets from this weekend, saying that he not only stands by them, but that he's been flooded by phone calls from black folks thanking him for his criticism of the city and of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). Uh huh, right. Does anybody on the planet actually think that: (1) sizable numbers of black people feel that way, and that (2) those folks can easily place person-to-person calls to the President of the United States? Pro tip, Mr. President: one phone call from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson does not constitute multitudes.

Just in case there was any question about how the optics of all of this are playing out, Quinnipiac just released a poll in which 51% of respondents agreed with the statement that Trump is a racist. That's considerably higher than the 41% of Americans in 1968 who felt that George Wallace was a racist. That would be the same George Wallace who ran a white supremacist presidential campaign, and who stood in the door of the University of Alabama and announced "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

This does not mean that Trump actually is more racist than Wallace, of course. Standards were different in 1968, such that for many Americans, you actually had to be the guy who lit the cross on fire in order to qualify as a "racist." It does mean, however, that Trump is more out of step with his time, on this issue, than Wallace was in his. Further, the whole point of dog whistles is to appeal to racist voters without alienating those who consider voting for a racist candidate to be socially unacceptable. The President's utter lack of subtlety could, and theoretically should, cost him at the polls next November. Even Trump's campaign staff agrees with this line of thinking; they think that attacking Cummings is bad strategy, and want the President to knock it off. Not too hard to predict who is going to win that little debate. (Z)

Today's Racism News, Part II

Recently, we observed that Donald Trump and the Republicans have begun playing the "identity politics" game, something the Democrats have been doing for years. Reader G.W. in Boca Raton, FL wrote in, and correctly observed that the GOP isn't actually a newcomer to this particular activity. Since Richard Nixon developed his "Southern Strategy" of appealing to disaffected white conservatives who were angry about the Civil Rights Movement, every president elected by the Republicans has engaged in some race-baiting. That includes not only Tricky Dick, but Ronald Reagan and his "welfare queens," George H. W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad, and the George W. Bush campaign's use of push polling to plant the idea that John McCain had a secret, illegitimate black child.

All of these maneuvers were subtle enough that they, in contrast to Donald Trump's over-the-top verbiage, can rightly be classified as dog whistles. The question that leaves for historians and other scholars is: Were these men really racist, or did they just play along with their voters' reactionary tendencies in order to get elected?

This week, we got a pretty good (and previously unknown) answer for one of the fellows on the list. We already knew, thanks to the infamous tape recordings, that Nixon said some pretty horrible things in private (particularly when talking to Billy Graham). And now we know that Nixon also had a pretty awful conversation with...Reagan. The Gipper was discussing the reaction of Tanzanian delegates to the U.N.'s decision to recognize the People's Republic of China. And what he said was: "To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they're still uncomfortable wearing shoes!" After getting off the phone with Reagan, Nixon repeated the sentiment to then-Secretary of State William Rogers and also described the Tanzanians as "cannibals."

The lesson is this: Any candidate willing to do some dog whistling is almost certainly revealing something about their own personal mindset. And if a candidate is willing to go far beyond dog whistling, well, you can reach your own conclusions about their mindset. (Z)

Yet Another GOP House Retirement

It's getting to the point that we may need to make a macro for these items, as we now have our fifth Republican retirement from the House in less than two weeks (and the ninth overall this cycle). The latest to take his job and shove it is Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX), who—like his colleague Rob Bishop (R-UT)—doesn't want to serve once he is rotated out of his position as ranking member of a committee (in Conaway's case, the House Agriculture Committee).

Conaway's district is a ruby red R+32, so it will stay in GOP hands. Still, a trend appears to be underway. As members of the minority party, committee leadership is the only real chance at influence that Republican members of Congress have. If those who are rotated out see no further purpose in serving, then the list of retirements could be almost as long as it was in 2018, since there are roughly a dozen more folks who are scheduled to lose their leadership posts next year. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Jul31 Democrats Debate in Detroit
Jul31 Second Debate Figures to Be Different From the First
Jul31 Trump Gets Another Court Victory
Jul31 California Will Require Presidential Candidates to Provide Tax Returns
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part I: Trump's Speech
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part II: McConnell's Donors
Jul31 Today in Bad Optics, Part III: Tax Cuts
Jul30 Trump Feels Threatened...
Jul30 ...And So Does McConnell
Jul30 Time for Democratic Debates, Round Two
Jul30 Polls Are Mostly Good News for Biden
Jul30 Another Republican Is Leaving the House
Jul30 DCCC a Mess Right Now
Jul29 Trump's Attacks on the Squad and Cummings Are No Accident
Jul29 Good Economy May Help the Democrats in the Midwest
Jul29 Black Democrats Want a Public Option
Jul29 Nadler: No Deadline for Impeachment
Jul29 Government Shutdown in the Fall is Still Possible
Jul29 Axios: Trump Will Nominate Texas Representative as DNI
Jul29 Trump and Johnson Are Working on a Trade Deal
Jul29 Mueller's Testimony Didn't Increase Demand for Impeachment
Jul29 Monday Q&A
Jul27 Trump Can Start Building His Wall
Jul27 This Weekend in Trump Racism
Jul27 America Will Get Less Safe This Week
Jul27 Democrats Aren't Giving Up on Impeachment
Jul27 Another GOP Representative Throws in the Towel
Jul27 Democratic Presidential Candidate Update: Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Jul27 Saturday Q&A
Jul26 Who Needs Election Security?
Jul26 Judge Blocks Asylum Rule
Jul26 Federal Government to Resume Executions
Jul26 Governor of Puerto Rico Resigns
Jul26 Today in Schadenfreude
Jul26 Good Polls for Biden
Jul26 Two GOP Representatives Won't Run for Reelection
Jul25 Mueller Appears Before the House, Everyone Comes Off Badly
Jul24 All Eyes on Mueller
Jul24 Brits Choose BoJo for Next PM
Jul24 Trump Sues to Protect His Tax Returns
Jul24 Senate Confirms Esper to Lead Department of Defense
Jul24 Afghanistan Wants Answers
Jul24 Trump Thinks Villainizing Omar Will Win Minnesota for Him
Jul24 House Democratic Candidates' Fundraising Is Brisk
Jul23 Budget Deal Is in Place
Jul23 Trump Administration to Exercise Broad Immigration Enforcement Powers
Jul23 Everyone Is Jockeying for Position Prior to Mueller's Testimony
Jul23 Pence Mystery Explained...Maybe
Jul23 A Skeleton from Biden's Closet
Jul23 Cumulus Media Buries Pete Buttigieg Interview