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Warren Is the Lone Star in Democrats' Texas Debate

Another Democratic debate is in the books. Here's how we saw it:

Who helped themselves the most? Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). There is no evidence that these debates can transform the presidential race overnight. And Warren's financial and polling situation is strong enough that she can afford to take it slow. These things being the case, she spent the night trying to hit solid singles, rather than swinging for the fences, and she executed that game plan very well.

The Senator had two goals. The first was to articulate her positions on the issues, which she did quite effectively. In fact, she's actually better at explaining Bernie Sanders' healthcare plan than Sanders is. The second was to let Democratic voters know more about her story. Warren is as aware as anyone that she's not connecting with key segments of the Democratic base, most obviously working-class folks, many of whom see her as a pointy-headed Harvard professor. So, she managed to talk about how she always wanted to be a teacher, and how she worked her way through college as a waitress, and the challenges she faced holding down a full-time job while she was pregnant.

All of this dovetails nicely with her approach to the campaign; she's doing a lot of small, town-hall style events followed by meet-and-greets afterwards. She brags, in fact, that she's already taken 50,000 selfies thus far. Whether her strategy pays off remains to be seen, of course, but she's playing the hand she was dealt as well as she can.

Other candidates who had their best debate so far: Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN), who did an excellent job of selling herself as a candidate with centrist appeal, Joe Biden, who came out swinging, and Beto O'Rourke, who decided to leave the robot impression (or is it a Tim Ryan impression?) at home.

Who helped themselves the least? Joe Biden. Now, wait. If we just said he had his best debate of the campaign, how can that be?

The answer, in short, is a tale of two Bidens. Prior to Thursday night, Biden was running a Hillary Clinton-style "remain above the fray" type of campaign. That's the right call when a candidate is up on the competition by 20 or 30 points. However, when a candidate is up by only 10 points or so, and appears to be falling back to the pack, it's time for the gloves to come off. Particularly in the debates, since Biden has gotten battered quite a bit in his two previous appearances on that stage.

At the start of the debate, then, and for the first hour, the former VP was excellent. He was strong, confident, gave good answers, and flashed that famous smile, while also doing some damage to his progressive rivals with some pointed observations about their healthcare plans. He looked 20 years younger, and it seemed all-but-certain that he'd be appearing in the previous section, and not this one.

However, after the first hour or so, the wheels slowly came off. The Biden campaign has two Achilles' heels—his age, and the problematic spots in his record—and viewers were repeatedly reminded of both in the second and third hours. On the former point, his answers after the first hour were often rambling and unfocused. Maybe that is because it is hard for anyone to remain sharp for three hours (although Warren is just a few years younger than Biden, and she didn't have any issues). Or maybe it is because the moderators started asking questions that the candidates could not have prepared for, forcing Biden (and the others) off script. See, for example, the last question of the night, which was: "I want to ask each of you, what's the most significant professional setback you've had to face? How did you recover from it? And what did you learn from it?"

Whatever the issue was, he rambled...badly. To take one example, Biden was asked about inequality in schools, and his past opposition to reparations. Here was his answer (forgive the length, but it would not be fair to edit him, given the point we're making):

Well, they have to deal with the—look, there's institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Red-lining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—look, you talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title I schools, triple the amount of money we spend from 15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise, the equal raise to getting out—the $60,000 level.

Number two, make sure that we bring in to help the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need—we have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It's crazy.

The teachers are—I'm married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. They have every problem coming to them. We have—make sure that every single child does, in fact, have 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds go to school. School. Not daycare. School. We bring social workers in to homes and parents to help them deal with how to raise their children.

It's not that they don't want to help. They don't—they don't know quite what to do. Play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the—the—make sure that kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school—a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

[Linsey Davis tries to cut him off, due to time being up]

There's so much we—no, I'm going to go like the rest of them do, twice over, OK?

Because here's the deal. The deal is that we've got this a little backwards. And by the way, in Venezuela, we should be allowing people to come here from Venezuela. I know Maduro. I've confronted Maduro.

Number two, you talk about the need to do something in Latin America. I'm the guy that came up with $740 million to see to it those three countries, in fact, changed their system so people don't have a chance to leave. You're all acting like we just discovered this yesterday. Thank you very much.

He stuttered a bunch, changed gears several times, and does not seem to have answered the actual question. And even if he did, where did the bit about Venezuela and Nicolás Maduro come from? It's also not going to help the perception that Biden is old and out of touch when he starts talking about the kiddies and their record players. Did he hurry home after the debate to catch the latest episodes of "Bonanza" and "The Andy Griffith Show"?

As to Biden's second weakness, namely the problematic aspects of his half-century record in politics, the same things keep coming up in the debates. For example, he wants to run as Obama v2.0 and take credit for all the successes of that administration, but then he looks like a deer in the headlights when asked about the failures and mistakes. One of the things raised on Thursday (and not for the first time) was the Obama-era border enforcement, many aspects of which are now out of favor with the base. Biden twice dodged questions on the subject, with non-answer answers. This is going to come up again and again, as is his vote for the Iraq War, his handling of Anita Hill, and half a dozen other less-than-stellar items on his résumé. When are he and his team going to come up with answers, as opposed to deflections? Donald Trump certainly isn't going to overlook or forget about these things.

The other candidate who did not help himself was Julián Castro. Entering the debate, he was in an interesting strategic position. On one hand, he was the lowest-polling candidate on stage, which means his campaign is in trouble. On the other hand, the debate was being held in his home state, in front of a very friendly crowd. The choice that Castro made was to launch a full-out offensive against Biden, hitting the former VP harder than anyone else on stage (and it wasn't particularly close). This was a justifiable strategy, but Castro took it too far, most obviously when he ripped into Biden for allegedly changing the position he had taken on healthcare two minutes earlier. "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Castro demanded, several times. Here's the video, for those who want to see for themselves:

It was, in short, kind of icky. The crowd didn't like it, Twitter didn't like it, the talking heads didn't like it. After the debate, Castro told CNN that he didn't intend to insult Biden, which suggests that the candidate knows he blew it.

Anyone else worth mentioning? Three people. First of all, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA). After spending the last two debates attacking Joe Biden, she barely even looked in his direction on Thursday. Instead, she spent most of her time (and far more than any other person on stage) slamming Donald Trump. Perhaps she has decided that this is a smarter approach. Or, maybe she's not running for president anymore so much as she's running for vice president.

Second is Barack Obama. He, of course, was not present on Thursday night. And yet, he loomed large over the proceedings. In the second round of debates, a lot of candidates said unflattering things about him. This was not part of a plan, it just sorta happened that way. And as a result, there was much kvetching about the members of the blue team attacking the most prominent and popular Democrat in the country. The folks on stage Thursday did not want to repeat that error, particularly in front of an audience drawn primarily from the student body of a historically black university. So, nearly all of them kissed the ring in one way or another, making sure to comment on their admiration for Obama and his policies. For example, this from Warren (who, lest we forget, wants to scrap Obamacare): "We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being."

And third is Xi Jinping. The Chinese president was not present on Thursday night, either. However, he will definitely be interested to learn what the Democrats are saying about him and his country. Every person who was asked about Donald Trump's tariffs conceded that they would have to be left in place by the next administration, at least for a while, for fear of communicating weakness to the Chinese. And all of the candidates who were asked about China announced their intention to be very assertive in negotiations with Xi. The Chinese leader undoubtedly loathes Donald Trump, but what he heard last night may give him pause if he's thinking about pro-Democrat election meddling.

How did the moderators do? Absolutely fantastic. Frankly, the DNC should dump the moderators they used for the previous debates, and use this quartet from here on out. They maintained discipline as well as was possible, they asked good and interesting questions, they covered many different areas of policy, and each candidate got at least one or two questions that put them on the spot without it being a "gotcha." There were also no stupid "raise your hand if..." questions. Univision's Jorge Ramos was particularly good; he could moderate all future debates all by himself and we wouldn't complain. Ramos is often regarded as a bilingual Walter Cronkite, the last news anchor truly respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. He is tough but fair.

Beyond the moderators, it was vastly better to have one night of debate, with all the viable candidates onstage, as opposed to splitting them across two nights. DNC Chair Tom Perez should really find a way to cut the fourth debate off at 10, even if 11 or 12 candidates meet the minimum qualifications. Another thing that worked better about last night's debate was giving the candidates a bit more time to answer questions. The price of that, ostensibly, was a three-hour debate rather than a two-hour debate. The three hours was the one thing about last night that didn't work so well; that's an awful lot to demand of both the candidates and the viewing audience. From where we sit, the sweet spot is a two-hour debate, with the longer answer times. If that means fewer topics are covered, then so be it.

Issue of the night: Healthcare. It was the first issue, it was the one that had the most time devoted to it, and it was likely the subject where voters learned the most about the candidates and how their platforms differ. That said, healthcare has now gotten attention at every single debate; it may be time to bench that issue for a couple of debates.

Snarky line of the night: From Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend): "You know, when I first got into this race, I remember President Trump scoffed and said he'd like to see me making a deal with Xi Jinping. I'd like to see him making a deal with Xi Jinping."

Non-snarky line of the night: From Warren: "I've never actually met anyone who likes their insurance company," as she explained why Medicare for All is not going to deprive anyone of anything they will miss.

Reddest meat of the night: Biden, of course, wants voters to see Sanders (and Warren) as wild-eyed pinkos, and him as the reasonable one. In that vein, the former VP was remarking on Sanders' assertion/belief that Medicare for All would reduce employers' healthcare costs, which would cause them to give out higher wages: "Well, let me tell you something. For a socialist, you've got—for a socialist, you've got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do."

Blunder of the night: Andrew Yang promised that he'd be unveiling a big surprise at the debate. And he did it during his opening remarks: People can go to his website, explain why they would like a guaranteed income of $1,000 a month, and 12 lucky respondents will be awarded that privilege for one year.

This is ostensibly proof-of-concept for his central campaign issue, but how will giving $12,000 to 10 people prove anything? It's also, pretty obviously, a ham-fisted effort to build a list of potential donors/supporters at a bargain price. And finally, it trivializes the candidate's policy by turning it into something like a game-show prize, as if they are winning a free living room set or a lifetime supply of cheese.

Undoubtedly, Yang will get some positive feedback from some corners of the Internet, but the candidates on stage definitely shared our sense that it was a clumsy move. Most of them audibly snickered, and Buttigieg (whose opening statement came immediately after Yang's) laughed and said "It's original, I'll give you that."

A little historical perspective: Given the audience and the venue, perhaps it's not surprising that the history of American slavery came up quite a bit.

First up was Beto O'Rourke, who said, "Racism in America is endemic. It is foundational. We can mark the creation of this country not at the Fourth of July, 1776, but August 20, 1619, when the first kidnapped African was brought to this country against his will and in bondage and as a slave built the greatness and the success and the wealth that neither he nor his descendants would ever be able to fully participate in and enjoy." The crowd liked that line, though O'Rourke's history is just a tad bit shaky here. 1619 is indeed the first year that captured Africans were brought to the (future) United States but, having been freed from a Portuguese slave ship, they were actually treated as indentured servants (freedom after seven years) rather than as slaves (freedom never). People often elide over the difference between those two statuses, particularly when speaking of those folks in 1619, but they really shouldn't, because it's disrespectful to the memory of those who were actually enslaved.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) was next, observing that "we have a criminal justice system that is so racially biased, we have more African-Americans under criminal supervision today than all the slaves in 1850." This is entirely true; there were 3.2 million slaves in 1850, and there are about 4 million black folks under criminal supervision today. Booker has clearly read Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which argues that grossly disproportionate incarceration rates have replaced discriminatory laws and, before that, slavery as a means of maintaining white supremacy in the United States.

Buttigieg got in on the party, as well, making sure to mention his Douglass plan, which is his proposal for elevating black Americans who live in poverty. It is named after Frederick Douglass, who ranks with Harriet Tubman as the most famous escaped slaves in American history (though Solomon Northup isn't far behind these days, thanks to 12 Years a Slave having won Best Picture in 2014).

A detail that may fly under the radar: Biden has clearly been taking some body language coaching (as Barack Obama did in 2008), but he still has work to do. Last night, he made a point of holding a pen in his hand, which makes him look studious, and gives the impression (true or not) that he's paying attention and taking notes. It's a good move, previously favored by Harris and Warren. On the other hand, he is in the bad habit of sometimes crossing his arms over his chest when one of the female candidates is speaking. That is not a good move, it looks patronizing.

On another note, ABC News advised the candidates of their strict no-swearing policy. They were worried about one person in particular, namely O'Rourke, who has taken to deploying the occasional four-letter word at his rallies. He managed to keep it under control on Thursday, though, with only the PG-rated "hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47" keeping him from a G-rated evening. Much better than an R.

On a scale of 1-10, how contentious was it? We'll give it a 5. It was about as contentious as the other debates, but with the slings and barbs coming from different candidates this time, with Biden and Castro putting on their boxing gloves, and Sanders and Harris taking theirs off. In Sanders' case, he was off his game, and was clearly suffering from a cold, or some other ailment that affected his voice and posture.

On a scale of 1-10, how much will this debate move the needle? We'd say a 3. It certainly did not remake the race, but if Biden is the hare and Warren is the tortoise, the tortoise made up a little ground last night.

The bottom line: Even if the DNC lacks the fortitude to keep it to 10 candidates or fewer, they still need to keep the fourth debate to one night. There is very limited value, at this point, in watching Tom Steyer and Booker argue with each other for two hours.

There you have it. The next debate will be on Tuesday, October 15, in Ohio, with the possibility of October 16 being added as a second night if the Party does not take our advice. (Z)

Judiciary Committee Approves a Resolution to Move Forward on Impeachment

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to proceed with an investigation of whether Donald Trump should be impeached. There had been some ambiguity on the matter ever since House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said impeachment was not on the table. Now it is unambiguously on the table.

What the resolution does is set the ground rules for going forward. For example, when a witness is called, each member of the Committee is allowed 5 minutes for pointless grandstanding, something that all members of Congress love dearly. But then each party gets an unbroken hour for its staff lawyers to really grill the witness. Republicans are wildly opposed to this because staff lawyers know how to extract real information from witnesses and don't let them stall for 5 minutes to use up the member's time slot.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is not very happy with this development, because she knows that most of the 40 House seats the Democrats picked up in 2018 came from Republican districts. Republicans will now be able to campaign in 2020 on a slogan of "The Democrats are just out to get Trump." She doesn't think this will help her new members get reelected.

Of course, starting an impeachment inquiry doesn't mean that the Committee will actually vote out articles of impeachment. It could spend the next 6 months just calling witnesses and holding hearings, in hopes that some bombshell comes out that fatally damages Trump. For example, an insider saying that Trump ordered him to obstruct justice and knew very well that it was illegal could do a lot of damage. Also, Trump's financial records could do him in.

The Democrats have already subpoenaed numerous people close to Trump to testify, but Trump has tried to block all their appearances. Sooner or later, the Supreme Court will have to step in, because the issue is fundamentally about what powers Congress has and what powers the Executive Branch has. Trump will try to delay the decision until after the election, but he is not completely in control of the calendar. (V)

Federal Charges Recommended for McCabe

While acting as deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe authorized a leak about a federal investigation into the Clinton Foundation. That was a no-no. Then, when he was questioned by investigators, he was less than fully honest with them. That was a double no-no. It cost McCabe his job, just before he was set to retire (and to collect a full pension), and now it might land him in prison, as federal prosecutors have recommended that he be charged with...well, something, although they're not saying what, publicly.

Donald Trump, of course, is thrilled by this turn of events. He sent out this retweet on Thursday night, for example:

That said, Trump's enthusiasm for the prosecution may also be its undoing. Normally, the offense that McCabe committed does not lead to a criminal trial. His lawyers will argue that he is being treated differently because of presidential pressure on the Justice Department, which could (and very well might) lead to a dismissal. Still, for now, Trump has a much-desired victory. (Z)

Democratic Group Will Spend $50 Million on Swing-State Rural Voters

A liberal super PAC, American Bridge, is planning to spend $50 million in four swing states—Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida—to try to convince rural Trump voters to switch sides in 2020. The group has done extensive polling to identify where the persuadable voters might be. The polling has shown that rural voters are concerned about the economy, trade, and health care, so the PAC will aim hyperlocal messages at these voters showing how Trump has failed them, thus giving them a "reason" to desert him. (V)

Warren Releases Social Security Plan

During campaign season, politicians promise all kinds of goodies to many groups, and Elizabeth Warren is no exception. Yesterday, she released her plan for Social Security. It would raise benefits by $200/month for the current 64 million recipients as well as future beneficiaries of the program. In other words: "Hey, seniors, vote for me!"

Warren is a serious candidate and does not like to offer pie in the sky, so she has a clear funding mechanism to pay for the raise. Currently, payroll taxes are 6.2% for employees and 6.2% for employers on wages up to $133,000. Warren would raise the money for her plan with a new 14.8% tax on individuals with wage and salary income above $250,000. This would create a donut hole in which income between $133,000 and $250,000 would not be subject to Social Security (FICA) tax. She would also tax investment income above $400,000. This is a somewhat roundabout way to do it. She could have just proposed changing the $133,000 cap to $400,000 or $1 million. Her approach is targeted at the very rich, since someone making $200,000 in salary probably doesn't have $400,000 in investment income on the side.

Warren is keenly aware that 35% of Democratic seniors support Joe Biden, so pandering to them sounds like a good way to peel off some of his support, especially since few of them will be paying the new tax. Plans that tax someone else to give you benefits are often very popular. (V)

Trump's Advisers Are Trying to Block His Tariffs

Some of Donald Trump's top economic advisers know that the current and upcoming tariffs on Chinese imports are going to hurt the economy in an election year, and they want to prevent that. They know that the boss will never agree to cancel them, so their plan is to delay them enough so that they won't scuttle his reelection. The first small steps are already happening. On Wednesday, Trump said that an additional 5% tariff on $250 billion of Chinese exports to the U.S. would be delayed from Sept. 30 to Oct. 15. China responded immediately by exempting 16 items from its tariffs.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is planning to meet with Chinese officials in the next few weeks to try to make a deal. He said he was "cautiously optimistic" about being able to come to terms with the Chinese. The only problem is that even if Mnuchin can work out a deal, ultimately Trump has to approve it, and he might feel that delaying his tariffs until after the election would make him look weak. (V)

Cruz Will Oppose a Trump Judicial Nominee

Earlier this week, several senators gave Donald Trump's nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Steven Menashi, a hard time at his confirmation hearing, although no senator said point blank that he would vote against him. This time another Trump appointee, this time for the Fifth Circuit, is in trouble and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has announced that he is a definite "no" vote. The nominee is Halil Suleyman Ozerden and he is a close friend of Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney pushed the nomination through over the objections of the White House Counsel's office. Now with one definite "no" vote and a number of senators undecided, his confirmation is in doubt.

Cruz's objection to Ozerden, currently a district judge in Mississippi, is that he is not conservative enough. In particular, the ACA has a mandate for insurance policies to cover contraception. Several groups challenged that in court, and Ozerden threw out the case. Cruz would have preferred that the contraception mandate was killed, even though he knows that less contraception invariably means more abortions, something he opposes. Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is a "yes," but it is unclear if there are enough votes for the Committee to recommend confirming Ozerden. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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