Can we find things to say about this week’s two-part Democratic debate that (a) you haven’t seen elsewhere and (b) relate specifically to Virginia? Let’s find out!
1. Mitch McConnell isn’t the problem. One of the best questions the candidates were asked was how they’d deal with McConnell, the Senate majority leader who has delighted in stifling Democratic initiatives — even a Supreme Court nominee. Joe Biden seemed to suggest his personal charm could win McConnell over. Elizabeth Warren said she’d bring public pressure that would make McConnell cave. History suggests both are delusional on those points.
If Republicans retain the Senate in 2020 — and there’s a good chance they will — then, yes, McConnell could block whatever a Democratic president wants to do. He did with Barack Obama; he could do the same again, be it President Biden or President Warren or, well, we don’t have room to list all the options. The problem, though, isn’t McConnell. Democrats would be quite thrilled if they had a Democratic majority in the Senate to block Trump’s Supreme Court nominees. The problem isn’t McConnell; it’s congressional rules, no matter which party is in control.
Under present rules, the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House wield near-dictatorial powers. No measure goes forward without their consent. No wonder we think Congress is dysfunctional; most bills never get voted on. That’s not how it works in Richmond. In the General Assembly, everything gets voted on. A bill might get killed in a subcommittee at 7 a.m., but at least you know who killed it. Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, may fancy himself just as ruthless as McConnell is in Washington, but Norment doesn’t have the institutional power to block bills the way McConnell does — or Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, would if he found himself the leader of a Democratic majority. Not a single candidate mentioned this. If voters want to see a more functional Congress, they should demand a change in congressional rules.
2. Rural America doesn’t exist. At least not in the Democratic universe. True, most of the things the candidates talked about would apply everywhere. Whether you think that’s good or bad is up to you. But for a party that has seen its support in rural areas wither — a decline that has cost it some states — you might think Democrats would want to gain at least some of those voters back. Only one candidate addressed this, though, and he was one of the candidates who barely registers in the polls.
That was Tim Ryan, a congressman from Ohio, who said: “We have a perception problem with the Democratic Party. We are not connecting to the working class people in the very states that I represent in Ohio, in the industrial Midwest. We’ve lost all connection. We have got to change the center of gravity of the Democratic Party from being coastal and . . . elitist and Ivy League, which is the perception, to somebody from the forgotten communities that have been left behind for the last 30 years, to get those workers back on our side so we can say we’re going to build electric vehicles, we’re going to build solar panels. But if you want to beat Mitch McConnell, this better be a working-class party. If you want to go into Kentucky and take his rear end out, and if you want to take Lindsey Graham out, you’ve got to have a blue collar party that can go into the textile communities in South Carolina.”
He’s right, of course, but there was no indication that anyone else on stage agreed with him. That’s the politics. When it comes to policy, only two candidates made oh-so-brief mentions of anything resembling an economic policy for rural America — Pete Buttigieg and John Delaney.
Or maybe four. Julián Castro and John Hickenlooper both talked about shutting down coal-fired plants in their previous jobs, but made no mention of what that means for coal-mining communities, or how those communities can build a post-coal economy.
By contrast, Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, came tantalizingly close when he talked about climate change: “Now, here’s what very few people talk about. First of all, rural America can be part of the solution instead of being told they’re part of the problem. With the right kind of soil management and other kind of investments, rural America could be a huge part of how we get this done.” He then went on to his other points, so we have no idea what “other kind of investments” he’s talking about. We can imagine what we’d like them to be, of course, but best not to assume. We’d like to hear more from Buttigieg on this point — assuming there is more. Buttigieg, a former business consultant, comes across as the most thoughtful of the bunch, so there might well be. As for Delaney . . .
3. Only one candidate mentioned the geographical wealth gap. Lots of candidates bemoaned how the rich are getting richer but workers aren’t. Only one candidate, though, bemoaned another wealth gap that’s widening — how jobs are clustering in a relatively handful of “superstar” cities. That candidate was Delaney, a little-known former congressman from Maryland who likely will stay little-known. “Last year in our country, 80 percent of the money for start-up businesses went to 50 counties in this country,” he said. He didn’t propose a solution, but he was, at least, the only candidate to acknowledge the problem.
Warren talked generally about how “there is way too much consolidation now in giant industries in this country.” She’s focused, though, on breaking up tech giants such as Amazon and Facebook. Splitting them in two or three or however many other pieces doesn’t change the fact they’d all still be based in those superstar cities.
Here’s where Democrats have a problem: Seven of the 20 candidates on stage over the past two nights come from states that are home to those superstar cities. It’s unclear how any candidate could encourage more venture capital be directed to smaller cities. Those are private decisions being made in the free market, and not even Bernie Sanders is enough of a socialist to call for regulating that. Still, it’s a very real economic problem. Five metro areas — San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles — vacuum up almost all the venture capital in the country. Why is one of the least-known and least-likely candidates the only one talking about that? We don’t know who won the debates (Kamala Harris is certainly one contender), but we know who lost: Anyone who cares about rural America.