Debate Watching

Re-used Elizabeth Warren Sticker

Lightning strikes illuminated a dark November sky as I drove my aging Subaru toward Solon for a debate watch party at El Sol Mexican Restaurant.

El Sol is one of the treasures of our community. Not because they stayed open an extra hour so we could watch the Democratic debate in Atlanta until its end, but because they contribute to the community in countless ways each year.

That the Elizabeth Warren campaign chose to hold a watch party in town, and picked this family-run restaurant, is evidence of how personalized they have become.

Whether Warren will win the nomination is an open question. Based on Saturday’s Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll, winning the Iowa caucuses is within the reach of four and maybe more candidates. Iowa matters less to Democrats than it did during the 1976 cycle, or even in 2008 where Barack Obama did two things: won the delegate count and contributed to dividing the party in a way that persists until today. As I wrote previously, the aggregate of early state caucuses and primaries through March 3 Super Tuesday will be more meaningful in determining who is viable and who has a path to the nomination. It could be Warren. It could be another.

The politically correct way to post about a chosen candidate on social media is to assert a best-picture narrative about them without reference to other candidates. Coralville political activist and Kamala Harris supporter Nick Westergaard stated it succinctly in a post promoting Harris on his Facebook page. “If you have a candidate already,” he wrote, “write your own post like this and talk about them there.” Such political correctness has to do with getting through the time until the Feb. 3 caucuses without fracturing the party further on social media. Social media means a lot less than its denizens, the author included, assert. What matters more is the statements people make in-person and off line.

I knew half of the attendees at the Warren debate watch party and half I met for the first time. It was hard to hear the television set so we couldn’t catch every sound bite. We talked more generally about the community, politics and our shared experiences. I spent most of the evening chatting with a local activist I’ve known for decades.

Two issues about the general election process won’t go away.

Will the 2020 electorate pick a woman as president? Among Democrats, nominating a woman as our candidate to face the Republican nominee can be done. Elizabeth Warren is in the top tier of candidates and I believe both Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris could be within striking distance, at least in Iowa. Based on conversations within my precinct, I believe Klobuchar and Warren could both be viable. The general election is where doubt arises about electing a female president. There continues to be resistance to electing a woman, especially once one gets outside the privileged liberal centers of the state. Johnson County, where I live, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. We were the only county in the state to do so. The other edge of this sword is we won’t have a female president unless we nominate one.

Giving up private insurance in favor of Medicare for All will be a non-starter, especially for people who were covered by private insurance during an illness. I hear this everywhere, including at the Warren debate watch party. This objection cannot be overcome through policies, snappy arguments or well-crafted verbiage. A significant, nonpartisan slice of the electorate wants government out of their health care insurance decisions. As we are painfully aware, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was lauded by many Democrats but fell flat among people who felt it was an intrusion into their personal lives to be mandated to get insurance or face a penalty. Because “Medicare for All” is weighted with diverse meanings in the electorate, it seems unlikely to go anywhere as presented by some Democratic presidential candidates.

When Medicare was signed into law in 1965, it was possible only because Lyndon Johnson had a broad mandate to make bold, progressive change. The same mandate of the 1964 election is not replicable today after the rise of conservatives, right-wing talk radio, the Moral Majority, cable news, and dark money institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society. There is also substantial division among Democrats. Even if Democrats retain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and gain a slim majority in the U.S. Senate, the time after Obama’s election when Democrats controlled the executive and legislative branches of government is a reminder of how little can get done in an age of political obstruction.

Even though our debate watch party was small in comparison to those in the county seat, I was glad for the chance to meet new people and talk about politics. I’m not sure of the value of the actual debates. Certainly news media outlets benefit by having stories to write, yet the short responses and interactions of candidates don’t serve the electorate well. Even though the staging makes it look like an even competition, it’s not. What mattered more was conversations at our table as the talking heads faded to the background.

I look forward to the ultimate presidential nominee, something we won’t know until spring at the earliest. I left two bucks in the boot near the restaurant door to support a new fire station as I returned to my vehicle.

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