It pays to go on the attack. That was the message of the first Democratic debates, as Senator Kamala Harris discovered when her exchange with former Vice President Joe Biden over 1970s school busing catapulted her into what was widely viewed as the winner’s slot.
“Biden may be a front-runner but he sure didn’t look like it,” wrote Roxanne Jones. “He looked tired, deflected direct questions early on and no matter what he did, could not handle the fire that Kamala Harris threw at him: questions about why he opposed school busing in the 70s.”
SE Cupp wrote during the debate, “What we learned about Kamala Harris tonight is that she is one of those rare, gifted orators who can speak passionately, but not shrilly. She can talk tough without sounding forced, she can be forceful without seeming entitled. Her responses were eloquent and informative, pointed but not canned. She owned that stage. Putting her policies aside, she is possibly the most capable communicator in the Democratic field. And Joe Biden should be very afraid.”
For the Democrats, this week was game on. Those vying for a desk in the Oval Office charged into two lively debates that officially launched the 2020 campaign season. (And this week we moved up our deadline for the newsletter to bring you the thoughts of our commentators soonest.)
Writing in advance of the first debate, Paul Begala said, “There is only one question: Who can beat Trump? The questions may sound like they’re about health care or taxes, Iran or North Korea, but believe me, the subtext is simple: Democrats want to beat Trump, period. If you’re asked a question about the border and give an answer about the border, you’ve given an incomplete response. You must use your answer to illustrate why your position or policy makes you the best person to defeat Donald Trump.” Most debaters didn’t follow this advice, choosing to talk instead about their policy stances and personal biographies.
And some decided to do it in Spanish, drawing a degree of eye-rolling. “Note to Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke,” wrote Raul Reyes, “it is wonderful that you can speak Spanish. But Latino voters do not really care whether a candidate speaks Spanish, we care about health care, jobs and the economy, and immigration (in that order).”
Julián Castro, who also spoke a bit of Spanish, received high marks for his performance. Like Kamala Harris, he didn’t shy away from taking on a rival.
Patti Solis Doyle wrote that Castro “breathed fresh new life into his struggling campaign. He is the first candidate to come out with a comprehensive immigration reform plan. He is also the first to propose decriminalizing crossing the border. He was not only able to tout his strong work on the issue but was also able to school his fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke.”
Elizabeth Warren was judged the winner of the first debate by many commentators. The fast-paced format “favored candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who excelled at articulating her positions with clarity, confidence and ease,” wrote Tara Setmayer.
Joe Lockhart noted that moderate views were largely sidelined in the first debate, in favor of bold initiatives like Medicare for All, but the party faces a central question: “Are Democrats willing to take the big risk for big change or will they take the safer route of incremental progress if that gives them a better chance of beating Trump?”
For SE Cupp, the key question was how to handle the “good economy.” Despite polls finding seven out of 10 Americans are pleased with the state of the economy, candidates focused on what they said is not working. “Granted, there are limited strategies available to candidates to combat facts like record low unemployment, but telling voters that they know better than them is the worst,” Cupp wrote.
Heartbreak on the border
A haunting photo cast a harsh light on the migrants seeking asylum at America’s southern border. “Angie Valeria had not celebrated her second birthday when she drowned on Sunday, grasping her father as they tried to reach the United States,” wrote Frida Ghitis. “The picture of tiny Valeria, face down, with her arm still around her dead father’s neck, has become the heartbreaking symbol of the Trump administration’s cruel – and failing – policies at the southern border.”
The photo added to the controversy that has raged over the treatment of children at the border. Clara Long and Nicole Austin-Hillery of Human Rights Watch visited a detention center at Clint, Texas, and found that, “US Border Patrol is holding many children, including some who are much too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like border facilities for weeks at a time without contact with family members, regular access to showers, clean clothes, toothbrushes, or proper beds. Many are sick. Many, including children as young as 2 or 3, have been separated from adult caretakers without any provisions for their care besides the unrelated older children also being held in detention.”
Alice Driver, who regularly reports from the border, wrote, “The Trump administration has made a continuous push to limit the right to request asylum – the primary tactic being cruelty under the guise of policy.”
If President Trump wants to reduce immigration that violates US law, he’s going about it all wrong, wrote economist Jeffrey Miron and research assistant Laura Nicolae. Instead, he should be helping eliminate incentives for border crossing by encouraging free trade, ending the war on drugs and increasing legal immigration. “As long as demand for immigration persists, enforcement-only attempts to limit illegal immigration will be only partially effective,” they wrote.
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“She’s not my type”
Elle Magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll spoke publicly about her accusation that Donald Trump sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s in a dressing room at the Bergdorf Goodman department store. It prompted a denial from Trump and a great deal of discussion.
“Why don’t women come forward with rape accusations sooner? Why don’t they go to the police?,’ asked Jill Filipovic. “The President of the United States has been accused of sexual misconduct by 16 women. Two of them have accused him of rape (the first, his ex-wife Ivana, said she didn’t mean rape in a criminal sense, just in the ‘he violently forced her to have sex’ sense). He has been accused of grabbing women’s breasts and buttocks, of planting his mouth on theirs out of nowhere, and busting into dressing rooms full of teenage girls and young women. (He denies all of it.) The consequences? Nada.”
One of Trump’s responses to the accusation – “She’s not my type” – drew extra attention. “The bizarre quality of Trump’s reaction to Carroll’s complaint, and to those lodged by many other women who have said he assaulted them, is matched only by the public response to his depraved ways,” wrote Michael D’Antonio. “Nobody seemed to notice that Trump denied raping Carroll with a comment that objectified her. And no one seems to be capable of responding effectively to his depravity. The President talks about sexual assault as if it is the same as consensual sex and not about violence, and much of America goes on about its business.”
Mueller: The Play
The setting: the historic Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood.
The cast: John Lithgow, Annette Bening, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander, Alyssa Milano, Kyra Sedgwick and Joel Grey, along with many other boldface names.
The performance: a new play by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan staged Monday that distills Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report down to “10 acts” of alleged obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump.
Julian Zelizer wrote that “the play seemed to be undertaking the role of Congress – bringing the findings to life and giving the public a sort of thorough congressional hearing that we simply have not seen yet. The results were powerful.”
The timing was almost certainly a coincidence, but the next day, two House committees announced that Robert Mueller would testify in public. Elie Honig wrote, “with Mueller set to testify under subpoena in Congress on July 17 – time is almost up on Trump and (Attorney General William) Barr’s prolonged public campaign of distortion and denial. The truth is about to come out.”
At the reading of Schenkkan’s play, Lithgow’s explosive portrayal of an often furious Trump drew applause and laughter. But the best line may have belonged to Michael Shannon, who played former White House counsel Don McGahn.
As Trump angrily asked McGahn, “Why do you take notes? Lawyers don’t take notes. I never had a lawyer who took notes,” McGahn calmly explained that he is a “real lawyer.”
‘One of the very worst’
The US Supreme Court wrapped up its term with a few cases that could have massive social and political implications. It blocked, at least temporarily, the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. And the 5-4 conservative majority declared that the courts had no business passing judgment on (even extreme) gerrymandering plans that are designed to cement the grip of political parties.
“We will look back on this decision as one of the very worst by the Supreme Court in the modern era and we will be working to clean up this mess for a very long time to come,” wrote John Avlon. “It will lead, consistent with partisan self-interest, to fewer competitive general elections, pushing political power at the congressional and state legislative level further toward the extremes,” he said.
First amendment expert Clay Calvert had better things to say about another court decision, giving the “green light to individuals and businesses seeking to register racy and offensive trademarks, striking down – on First Amendment grounds – a law giving the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) the power to deny registration for marks it deems ‘immoral’ and ‘scandalous.’” The case was brought by Erik Brunetti, who sought to register the trademark “FUCT” for use as a clothing brand.
“This result is a clear victory for free speech, but it also shows that some of the justices are hesitant to protect all forms of offensive expression,” and it raises the question of what Congress will do now, he wrote.
Peter Bergen: Jared Kushner’s peace plan is dead on arrival
Jon Lerner: Trump’s Middle East plan is a refreshing change
Edward McCaffery: Amazon’s less-than-zero tax rate is unacceptable
Raymond Joseph: How to survive Chennai’s water crisis
A mirror on our world
One hundred years ago today (June 28), the victorious and defeated powers of World War I gathered in the Hall of Mirrors at the palace of Versailles to sign the peace treaty. As David Andelman wrote, it exacted a heavy price from Germany, setting the groundwork for another world war and also giving birth to factors that still shape our world today, including the rise of the Chinese Communist party, the Israeli-Palestinian divide and the carving up of the Middle East and the Balkans. Versailles is a lesson for today’s leaders, Andelman noted: “the horrific consequences of Versailles greatly outweighed any immediate personal gratification or domestic political success.”