A distracted, incomplete, and biased response to the Democratic Debate

I’ll admit it: I’m not much for watching televised debates. Even though there’s an exciting race going on and the debate included a candidate who I’m kinda jazzed about, I just don’t have the attention span for it. I often have the same problem with sports. Some games will get my undivided attention, especially championships and others with high stakes (the recent Super Bowl and Australian Open come to mind.) But with most games, as with the debate that occurred a few hours ago, I start out well, paying full attention, but soon my mind begins to wander. Then I pick up my laptop and it’s all over; despite occasional efforts to keep up, by the end I’m completely distracted and only looking up at the screen with a “Huh?” or a “Wha?” when my girlfriend exclaims or declaims or laughs at something that just happened.

That’s pretty much what happened tonight. It didn’t help that it’s a Thursday night; usually by this point in the week, during the evenings I can pretty much muster up only the focus needed to watch American Idol (quote of the week: “You are a blend… of every favorite color… that I know”) or The Office (which I really hope is returning soon, because I like it a whole lot better than American Idol.)

HOWEVER – I did take some notes on particularly amusing/disturbing/annoying/upsetting parts of the debate, and will share those thoughts with you here. I do this with a big huge disclaimer: this is by no means a play by play, nor a thorough account, nor a particularly fair account as I started drifting fairly early on and found myself paying attention more when Obama was talking than when Clinton was. I’m sure someone will tell me that’s because I’m sexist, but hey, at least I’m not racist! Hah.

(All quotes refer to this transcript of the debate.)

Opening statements: I must admit that Clinton came across stronger to me during her opening statement, not even so much in content as in her delivery. It just seemed a bit more polished and well-delivered. But, on the flip side, maybe that made Obama’s statement seem more candid and less fabricated? Perhaps his less perfect delivery was, in fact, carefully crafted in response to the Clinton camp’s snipes about him being more about pretty words than action? Who knows. As for the audience response, Clinton got six applause moments (including at the end of her speech) to Obama’s three. They definitely seemed to be digging her more. If I were doing a round by round account, this one would probably go to Clinton. But I’m not going to keep it up, so I suppose that doesn’t mean all that much. Ah well.

I will also admit that until just now I’ve been confusing Barbara Jordan, who both candidates referenced, with Barbara Smith. Whoops. And here I was thinking that it was pretty damn cool that both candidates were quoting a brilliant Black lesbian feminist scholar, author and activist. But whoa: I just learned that Barbara Jordan was a lesbian. So they were quoting a brilliant Black lesbian (though relatively closeted throughout her life) politician. Still pretty damn cool, I’d say. Clinton talked about knowing and being inspired by Jordan while Obama quoted her. Can’t decide which one wins more points. (See? Totally like sports.)

Clinton on Cuba: bsolutely nothing surprising here, and pretty much nothing that wouldn’t sound natural coming out of George W. Bush’s mouth, except he sounds like more of a stubborn ass when he says it. Basically, Clinton’s not willing to meet with Raul Castro or other Cuban leaders until they’re ready to do what the United States tells them to do.

When asked whether she would meet with Raul Castro after he takes power, she responded:

I … would not meet with him until there was evidence that change was happening because I think it’s important that they demonstrate clearly that they are committed to change the direction.

Then I think, you know, something like diplomatic encounters and negotiations over specifics could take place.

Diplomatic encounters? That sounds like either something CIA and foreign agents do in Mission: Impossible or holding out on sex until somebody coughs up a big ol’ diamond. She went on to say,

… a presidential visit should not be offered and given without some evidence that it will demonstrate the kind of progress that is in our interest and, in this case, in the interest of the Cuban people.

The order of importance here – the interest of the U.S. comes before the interest of the Cuban people themselves – nicely sums up the tack that Clinton, like Bush and like so many other politicians and ex-presidents, take with Cuba and with other troublesome or troubled nations. They like to say pretty words about wishing all those poor people the blessings of democracy and liberty and some such bull, but it’s really all about what the U.S. can get, bully or outright steal from them.

Obama’s stance on Cuba is better, though not really satisfactory. He did pick up on Clinton’s strange order of importance there, starting off by saying that “the starting point for our policy in … Cuba should be the liberty of the Cuban people.” He also stated that he would meet with the Cuban leader without preconditions, reiterating one of his core foreign policy stances of talking to both our friends and our enemies, and that I greatly appreciated. But his general assessment of the state of thing in Cuba is pretty standard, looking for change and liberty at last and so on and so forth. His proposed relaxation of restrictions of Cuban-Americans sending money to and traveling to Cuba is a start, but not a very strong one; it does seem like he’s backpedaling from normalization that doesn’t have a whole lot of strings attached to it. Interesting, he never said the word democracy when discussing Cuba, which I actually appreciate. Maybe that was a fluke, but given the sad state of our so-called democracy, it would be nice to see a candidate who is open to the idea that other forms of government might be just as capable (or incapable, as it were) of granting true freedom and liberty across the board.

While discussing Cuba, he said something about Cuba being isolated by the United Statesduring his entire lifetime, then pauses and quickly adds “and Senator Clinton’s entire lifetime.” This was amusing not only because he scrambled to try to avoid stressing the age difference between Clinton and himself (which can be twisted to shore up accusations of inexperience), but also because it’s not true. Fidel Castro took power in 1959; before that, Cuba was run by Fulgencio Batista, with whom the U.S. was right cozy. (Guess you’re not an evil dictator if the U.S. likes you, huh?) Obama was born in 1961, so he’s right about his lifetime, but Clinton was born in 1947 and is therefore probably old enough to at least vaguely remember Batista and the Revolution.

Clinton responded to Obama with more talk indicating that the US getting what it wants from Cuba and other adversarial nations is paramount and a precursor to a presidential meeting. When she talked about “countries that, frankly, are oppressed, like Cuba, like Iran,” I wanted to puke. How about all the people we’re oppressing in Iraq? How about all the oppressed people right here at home? Can we talk about that? Can we cut off diplomatic relations with ourselves until we stop all that darned oppressing?

I really liked this response from Obama:

… if we think that meeting with the president is a privilege that has to be earned, I think that reinforces the sense that we stand above the rest of the world at this point in time, and I think that it’s important for us, in undoing the damage that has been done over the last seven years, for the president to be willing to take that extra step. That’s the kind of step that I would like to take as president of the United States.

The topic then moved to the economy. Obama said something about wanting to “stop giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas.” You know, that rhetoric always rubs me the wrong way. Something feels really xenophobic about it. Myopic, too. Maybe it would help if he and others who talk about that acknowledged that it’s not just American workers getting screwed by globalization. Perhaps he could add something like “overseas to where they often pay workers shit and treat them just as badly?” Except maybe without the cursing. Though that could be fun. Probably lose votes that way, though.

I really liked what he had to say about creating a “green economy”:

We send a billion dollars to foreign countries every day because of our addition to foreign oil. And for us to move rapidly to cap greenhouse gases, generate billions of dollars that we can reinvest in solar and wind and biodiesel — that can put people back to work.

Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention – Clinton does say that she’s been promoting the idea of clean green jobs, too, and I’ve no reason to doubt that’s true. But I think that’s a great concept and a great way to promote environmental concerns among folks who might not give them much credence otherwise. Clean, renewable energy sources that reduce our reliance on foreign oil, thereby eliminating a major source of foreign policy strife and belligerence, while creating more American jobs and saving people money on their heating bills to boot? That’s killing a whole lot of birds with one stone. Hmm, that’s not a very green phrase. That’s getting a whole lot of use out of one piece of scrap paper! Uh… yeah.

I definitely liked Clinton’s commitment to a moratorium on home foreclosures. But for only 90 days? Does she really think that the government would be able to figure out how to stem the housing disaster in a mere three months? Obama says he doesn’t support a moratorium because he doesn’t think it would work; if he means that it won’t work in 90 days, then yeah, I agree. What’s the point of a moratorium if a whole bunch of people lose their houses all at once at the end of it? Anyhow, I’m not much of an economist, but her proposal of freezing interest rates for five years is a good one and sounds like a much more useful amount of time with which something could be done. And though she didn’t get to make her point about it, I did appreciate Clinton saying that we need to stop “Bush’s war on science.” I think she was about to make that point in relation to environmental and economic concerns. A good point to make.

Then came immigration. The debate was cosponsored by CNN and Univision, and the latter’s representative didn’t hesitate to cut to the chase and ask the Big Questions from Latinos – very important given the setting of the debate and one of the big upcoming contests, Texas.

Both Clinton and Obama spoke about “tougher, more secure borders.” I really don’t get the obsession with secure borders. As far as I know, neither the 9/11 bombers nor the perpetrators of other recent attacks have come from or even through Mexico. And yet locking down the Mexican border is a key component of national security. Whatever.

Both candidates also recited the unholy trinity of ludicrous and racist demands on undocumented immigrants who start on a path towards legalization: paying substantial fines for entering the country illegally (because undocumented immigrants have all sorts of money just lying around, you know, they just came here the hard and scary way for the sport of it), paying back taxes (see my previous snarky remark, plus don’t forget that many undocumented immigrants already pay taxes one way or another), and learning to speak English. That last one just pisses me off to no end. Obama made it even worse, saying that undocumented immigrants must go “to the back of the line, so that they’re not getting citizenship before those who have applied legally.” Again, people who are coming here illegally aren’t doing it because they’re lazy, or want to be sneaky, or just for the hell of it; more often than not, they’re doing it out of desperation, a desperation that U.S. foreign economic policy has helped to create. The need tpo punish people for acting as best they can on that sort of desperation is just beyond me. It just seems mean. But the U.S. does seem to relish punishing people as harshly as possible for their mistakes, especially poor folks and people of color.

Obama and Clinton also both spoke about helping “countries to the south” create more jobs there so that less people are pressured to immigrate. Neither one got very specific about how they’d do so. Obama did speak more extensively about an American responsibility to help and about how we’ve dropped the ball so far, but no one ever seems to talk much about how America has a responsibility to help because it’s so culpable for how bad the situations in these countries has gotten in the first place.

I appreciated Obama condemning the racist backlash against Latino people:

… it is absolutely critical that we tone down the rhetoric when it comes to the immigration debate, because there has been an undertone that has been ugly. Oftentimes it has been directed at the Hispanic community. We have seen hate crimes skyrocket in the wake of the immigration debate, as it’s been conducted in Washington, and that is unacceptable.

The candidates were then asked about the border fence being built on the Mexican border. They both had pretty lousy and weak things to say about it, though luckily neither is gung-ho about it either. My girlfriend and I were both spitting mad, though, when Clinton said this about how the building of the fence has gotten out of hand:

This is the kind of absurdity that we’re getting from this administration. I know it because I’ve been fighting with them about the northern border. Their imposition of passports and other kinds of burdens are separating people from families, interfering with business and commerce and movement of goods and people.

What? Is she honestly trying to compare what’s going on with the Canadian border with what’s going on with the Mexican border? Passports and whatever other “burdens” she’s talk about don’t hold a fucking candle to what’s going down on the Mexican border. We’re talking about a fence, people. Mexican people are being treated like animals, literally. Some proposals call for the fences to be 15 feet tall, just a foot shorter than the Association of Zoos and Aquariums recommends for tiger enclosures. Comparing the Canadian and Mexican borders is pretty much like comparing crabapples and genetically modified oranges the size and weight of bowling balls. And then the bowling oranges are thrown at undocumented Mexican immigrants. That’s pretty much how useful that comparison is and how stupid Clinton’s claims of knowledge of the situation because she’s dealt with it as a NY senator.

The candidates were asked about what they thought of the United States becoming a bilingual country. They both did the whole “English as a common, unifying language” assimilation thing, predictably disappointing. They both also talked about how they think all Americans should learn a second language, which was cute but completely missed the point of the question. Obama did manage to squeeze in a point about the failures of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing, which I appreciated.

At this point I started drifting off more, so my notes become sparse. I was irked yet again to hear the phrase “all hat and no cattle” coming from Clinton, and thought that Obama’s use of the phrase “wounded warriors” to describe veterans took the cheeze prize of the night. I mean, warriors? Come on now. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Obama was endorsed by every major newspaper in Texas; that seems to bode well for his chances there. I was also surprised to learn that Deval Patrick is the national co-chairman of Obama’s campaign. Somehow I missed that, but it makes Clinton’s charges of plagiarism all the more ludicrous. And I love that one of the questions asked was “Senator Clinton, is it the silly season?” Just so funny out of context, still pretty funny even with the context (Obama had referred to the recent increase in attacks from the Clinton campaign as an indication that we’ve moved into the “silly season in politics.”)

The last section to which I paid much attention to at all was the question on health care. Both candidates made their usual points, but then proceeded to get really fired up about the topic and truly start debating each other, stopping the moderators from changing the topic. I was very happy when Obama pointed out “that when Senator Clinton says a mandate, it’s not a mandate on government to provide health insurance; it’s a mandate on individuals to purchase it.” Every time the Clinton campaign claims that Obama’s plan leaves 15 million people out I feel like yelling at the TV or the radio because it’s a completely misleading claim. I don’t see how being able to claim that you’re going to insure everyone by forcing them to buy insurance whether they can afford it or not (and fining them if they don’t) is better than a plan that doesn’t force everyone into paying and doesn’t penalize them if they can’t.

And that’s pretty much where my attention span shut down completely, plus the DVR recorder cut off the last few minutes or so of the debate, so thus concludes my distracted, incomplete, and biased response to the Democratic Debate.

Edited to add: I forgot to write this in the wee hours this morning, but it occurred to me that maybe another reason that I don’t like watching the debates is that they tend to drive home that neither candidate is stellar, not even the one I’m pulling for. I mean, ultimately I agreed with more that Obama said than I agreed with Clinton, but that wasn’t by huge margins. Sigh. I guess that’s a good reminder to me, though – despite the hope that I do get from Obama, this actually is for the most part still politics as usual. And what else could it be? In this country, we’re far from electing a president who is all that distant from the Washington mainstream. Neither Obama nor Clinton would have the shot that they do if they weren’t toeing the line for the most part.

4 Responses to “A distracted, incomplete, and biased response to the Democratic Debate”

  1. 1 Dylan Thurston

    Thanks for the summary! I appreciated your take on many issues.

    On the “all hat, no cattle” comment, the moderator was the one who brought it up, noting that Clinton had used it to refer to Bush (not Obama, as widely assumed). Clinton declined to apply it to Obama, saying that “our next president needs to be a lot less hat and a lot more cattle”. So I think your distraction led you to be unfair here.

    (However, Clinton did mention the state senator who was unable to name anything Obama did.)

  2. 2 Jack

    Hey, Dylan – perhaps I was being a little bit unfair, she didn’t bring up the phrase herself. But it’s the phrase itself that’s begun to irk me, it’s just too much of a cutesy appropriated regionalism. Though when I first heard it applied to Bush, I thought it was smart and pretty funny.

  3. 3 Daniel Kahn Gillmor

    Thanks for the rundown, Jack. “incomplete” as it is, it’s a lot more insightful and impassioned than most of what passes for commentary that i’ve been reading. Much appreciated.

    Sure would be nice to have a politics “not as usual” someday, though.

  4. 4 trina

    Thanks for reminding me neither candidate is fully up to the job, though I have to lean towards one and hope for the best. I just hope while these two are ‘debating’ on the front lawn, McCain and Co doesn’t sneak into the back door and change the locks on the White House.

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