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Analysts Lester Spence and Kimberly Moffit critique Democratic candidates for president as they took on corporate power, healthcare, immigration, gun control, abortion, and Iran. Some ideas and candidates shined, some faded

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. Last night was the first of two debates for the Democratic candidates for president. Some jokingly called it the debate for vice president. Although Elizabeth Warren was there and did well, it does open the door for people like Julian Castro and others to shine a bit, like de Blasio. The debate made it crystal clear how the Left and grassroots have pushed the Democratic Party further to the left. As defining issues came up during the course of that evening, perhaps the future of the party itself may be defined by this push to the left. This is especially true on curbing corporate power, taxing wealth, climate change, the working class, health care, racial justice. Things are shifting. Will they really? We’ll see. And we’ll look at all of this as much as possible with our guests today in the time that we have. We’re here with Dr. Kimberly Moffitt, Associate Professor and Chair of Language, Literacy, & Culture at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Her latest book is Michelle Obama and The FLOTUS Effect. Good to have you here, Kimberly.


MARC STEINER And Dr. Lester Spence, Professor of Political Studies and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is Knocking the Hustle. Lester, good to see you.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Good to see you.

MARC STEINER So, let’s begin this way. Let’s open up with this opening segment of Elizabeth Warren—Elizabeth Warren? Yes. Probably forgot her first name. [panel laughs] Elizabeth Warren questioning corporate America and what this means about the shift to the left, and why everybody’s taking these positions. We’ll hear her, and then in a minute, we’ll also hear a bunch of other candidates on the same issue.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latinx whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed, and whose communities are ruined. It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down on us. When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption. Pure and simple. We need to call it out, we need to attack it head-on, and we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy, and in our country.

MARC STEINER Now, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have, kind of, taken on the role of really going after corporations. There’s been a big push in this country from the left and from the grassroots to really take on corporate power and the 1%, but I think it’s important to also listen to how these other candidates— a, kind of, group of them— also spoke to this. And how this may be defining this campaign against Trump, Republicans, the Right, and what it really means.

BETO O’ROURKE Right now, we have a system that favors those who can pay for access and outcomes. That’s how you explain an economy that is rigged to corporations and to the very wealthiest— a $2 trillion tax cut that favored corporations while they were sitting on record piles of cash and the very wealthiest in this country at a time of historic wealth inequality.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER I think we have a serious problem in our country with corporate consolidation. You see the evidence of that in how dignity is being stripped from labor. And we have people that work full-time jobs and still can’t make a living wage. We see that because consumer prices are being raised by pharmaceutical companies that often have monopolistic holds on drugs.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO I want to make it clear. This is supposed to be the party of working people. Yes, we’re supposed to be for a 70% tax rate on the wealthy. Yes, we’re supposed to be for free college, free public college for our young people. We are supposed to break up big corporations when they’re not serving our democracy. This Democratic Party has to be strong and bold and progressive. And in New York, we’ve proven that we can do something very different. We can put money back in the hands of working people. And let me tell you, every time you talk about investing in people and their communities, you hear folks say, there’s not enough money. What I say to them every single time is, there’s plenty of money in this world. There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands. These Democrats have to fix that. [crowd cheers]

MARC STEINER So, there we go. Lester?

DR. LESTER SPENCE So I’m going to—To get a sense about what type of shift this is, I’m going to pick on the candidate that I’m familiar with probably the most of the suite of candidates that we see— Corey Booker. So Corey Booker, when he was Mayor of Newark, he basically turned over the Newark Public Schools to Facebook. I believe in the last presidential election— not the one four years ago, the one eight years ago— he critiqued, I believe, at least somebody associated with the Democratic Party for going against private equity because private equity was, kind of, a source of a lot of his own campaign funds. But given the shift to the left, he can no longer maintain the same types of stances for corporate consolidation and for privatization that he once took for granted. Now the thing is, it’s complicated. So the bit that he was answering about there, he was asked specifically about Facebook and Google. And his answer moved away from Facebook—

MARC STEINER Right. There was a lot of dancing last night. Lots of dancing—

DR. LESTER SPENCE Right. Yeah. It was dancing but he moved, and he didn’t talk about Facebook and Google. He talked instead about pharmaceutical drug sales, but even in that case, I’m almost positive that you can look back to one of his votes where he voted actually against providing the government actually getting into the process of buying drugs to make it cheaper for the consumer. But he’s forced, at least rhetorically, to move more towards the place established by Sanders and Warren, as far as the candidates, and then, the left more broadly.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT And so, I think what they’re doing is responding to what polling data shows in terms of giving us Elizabeth Warren as one of the front runners. And if she as a front runner is more to the left, then so too should we be in order to make sure we remain competitive in this process. But I think it’s very short-sighted because what we need to be doing is thinking about what are some of the core values of that particular party, and the ideologies that they desire to see going forward— instead of being shifted by just a few candidates and making decisions on what does the entire population of that Democratic Party actually desire and look for.

MARC STEINER So before we—Can I get into some of the other issues here? I’m curious, when we saw what we saw last night and these few clips we just played right now, how significant, how real, how deep is this forced shift we call to the left? But in many ways, the things we call the left are in a popular sense, issues people care about, but they just don’t call them the left in our country, which is why they’re being pushed there. The left is pushing to the left, but the people are just saying we want medical care. We want decent housing. We want a good environment. We want good education. So, how deep is this? I mean, because you said earlier, before we went on the air, Lester, that sometimes you can go from the left, but then once you get in power, the center takes over.

DR. LESTER SPENCE So one way to look at this is, kind of, attitudinally, right? So we actually know that majorities that are based on some public opinion surveys, that a majority of Americans want a variety of things that we associate with the left. Like, I think, they want better health care, they want corporations to be more responsible, they want our government to do more to deal with climate, they want certain forms of labor protections, and then there are few other things too. What’s relatively newer is there is actually a great deal of resentment, like, we talk about racial resentment often, but there’s actually a great deal of resentment towards the wealthy. A colleague of mine, Spencer Piston, wrote a really wonderful book on class attitudes in American politics, and what he basically just did was he took the standard surveys that political scientists and social scientist have been studying for years, and actually started to mine them. Instead of questions about racism asked in different ways, he started to mine them for questions about class asked in different ways. And what he sees is that consistently, there is a great deal of resentment towards what we call the 1%. So if you take those attitudes about policy, combine them with attitudes about the people who get most of the benefits from the policies we have now, we actually have the makings of a durable alliance that can actually shift the nation leftward in public policy in electing individuals to office and in remaking the relationship between the state and the market. However—


DR. LESTER SPENCE However. I’m sorry. However, that doesn’t mean it’s durable within the party.

MARC STEINER That’s a very powerful point.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Well, and my however is we are talking about a concept in which Americans don’t like to deal with in the first place. And so, the idea of expressing class in that way, admitting that we participate in class, is not what most Americans are willing to do. We’re not even willing to have the conversations about it.

DR. LESTER SPENCE I don’t know about that. What we can say is that elites aren’t willing to have the discussion—

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Oh. Well, clearly. Right, right.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Right. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT But. But when we look at the difference between the two parties and how the working-class is spread across both parties, clearly what you’re arguing is yes, there should be this unified alliance to address these issues because they are all being impacted. However, the moment you interject things such as immigration or reproductive justice or abortion— to be even more specific— that is when you start to see the divide and class becomes a non-issue.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Well, so here’s another way to think about that, right? So, one way to think about Trump’s victory is that Trump—And again, it’s complicated, but one way to read Trump’s victory is as the working man, is actually as somebody that the working man really, really, really narrowly defined— race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.— that he’s the working man’s candidate within the Republican Party. Now, granted, they did that wrong, but he was actually making populist arguments.


MARC STEINER He became the white working man’s—


MARC STEINER But I think that it’s interesting Ryan had that great statement in the debate last night where he talked about uniting the working class across male and female, black, white, Latino, Asian, transgender, straight—It was, you know, he’s an interesting character.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Yeah, but he faded into the background.

MARC STEINER He did fade, but I’m just saying, some of the things he said were really, pretty powerful because he represents a working-class district and he was really, kind of, speaking to that.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT And in a red state.

MARC STEINER So one of the other big issues here that I think that clearly is going to be a battleground in this election, will be health care and how we define health care. So let’s take a look at what some of the candidates said about that and tackle this.

LESTER HOLT Who here would abolish their private health insurance in favor of a government-run plan? Just a show of hands to start out with. [crowd murmurs and applauds] All right, well—

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN Health care is a basic human right and I will fight for basic human rights. [crowd cheers]

BETO O’ROURKE Getting to guaranteed, high-quality universal health care as quickly and surely as possible has to be our goal.

LESTER HOLT I do want to ask a follow-up on this one. Just to be, just to be very clear— I’ll give you ten seconds— would you replace private insurance?

BETO O’ROURKE No. I think that choice is fundamental to our ability to get everybody cared for—

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO Hey. Wait, wait, wait. Congressman O’Rourke, private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans. When you talk about the co-pays, the deductibles, the premiums, the out-of-pocket expenses— it’s not working. How can you defend a system that is not working?

BETO O’ROURKE That’s right. So for those of whom it is not working, they can choose Medicare. For the—workers in—who I listen to—

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO Congressman, you gotta start by acknowledging the system is not working for people.

BETO O’ROURKE The negotiators of these plans—

SENATOR CORY BOOKER In my community, African Americans have a lower life expectancy because of poorer health care. And so, where I stand is very clear. Health care is not just a human right, it should be an American right.

MARC STEINER “Should be an American right.” So this really got off and plus, I think, between Beto and de Blasio, it was really amazing. I mean, Beto— and we can know about Beto later if we have time— but he really, kind of, took a nosedive last night.


MARC STEINER I don’t know who that candidate was in Texas, but he certainly isn’t posting right now. [laughs] But let’s talk about this health care piece. Again, this entire debate has been pushed in a place that was never there before. Obama, kind of, didn’t even promise to pick up the option, didn’t pick up the public option, and then since that moment, it’s really been pushed further— Medicare for All. People are trying to wrestle with how they would do Medicare for All and not do away with private insurance. When I heard de Blasio and he talks about all these co-pays, all I want to say is, yes, brother. I understand. I do know. I hate that. [panel laughs] So talk a bit about where you think this takes this debate and what people said. Kimberly, want to begin?

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Um. I found it interesting that it was just Warren and de Blasio who raised their hands, and the other eight candidates, kind of, held firm to where they were. I do think health care will be a major issue in 2020, that candidates as well as the general public is looking for an answer to this. And so, even though Obama did not manage that to the best effect, what I do think he did is he opened the door so that folks are like, this has to be resolved; we’ve got to do something different. What Trump has done is rolled us back a bit on these issues, but in particular, the Democratic Party is saying we’ve got to keep pushing it. And that’s what’s going to help us return back to the White House.

MARC STEINER So let me add to this as you come into this, Lester. I mean, one of the things if we watched what happened with Obamacare— what we called Obamacare— the Affordable Care Act, and the difficulty it had getting through and the resistance it had from the Republicans, the resistance it had from the Right, the resistance that it had from the pharmaceutical industry, the health care industry itself. Imagine the battle for Medicare for All that’s being taken up here and how that might play out politically.

DR. LESTER SPENCE So what I think we discount is the ability of rhetoric to actually create majorities. So you use rhetoric to say, okay, this is where we are, but this is where we want to go. And then, once you articulate that— I mean, given all types of other stuff— then people can say, oh wow. This is possible. I didn’t know this was possible. Yes, we can fight for this. Yes, we should. So what I think we’re seeing now is something that can have the potential to create, kind of, a new imaginary around health care because that’s kind of what we’re talking about. We’re talking about within a very short time we—And I disagree slightly with Kim in that I think we can say that Obama’s legislation created the space, but Obama didn’t do it. Obama, at no point in time articulated anything saying, like, this is what—

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT All right. It is his legislation. It is.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Yeah, right. Where we want to go is this, but this is our halfway point. What we’re seeing now is actually the potential of a movement on this and a range of other issues where we could say, wow, this is where we want to go. We want health care as a human right. That’s really a radical statement compared to where we’ve been going back to 92′. And it’s actually a telling moment that Warren—I’m not going to really, to be fair—I’m trifling, but I’m not really going to count homeboy.

MARC STEINER You’re talking about Booker?


DR. LESTER SPENCE Not Booker, de Blasio. I’m not going to bring up de Blasio.

MARC STEINER de Blasio, he—Right, right.

DR. LESTER SPENCE You know, Warren was the only one—Warren and de Blasio were the only ones who put their hand up. So if you look at corporate support and the Democratic Party, there are two candidates that the corporations are like, we don’t want to give money to, we really don’t want to support— it’s Warren and it’s Sanders. And it’s telling that Warren was like, yo, it should be a human right. And we even see Booker—And we see Booker again trying to tack in her direction, but still, well no. It’s an American right. No, human right is a different—That’s a different analytical concept than an American—Right. [laughs]

MARC STEINER Right. That’s really important. That’s really important. So let’s take this other piece we’re going to, kind of, look at here. Immigration was really hot and heavy in this conversation last night and I think that’s one of our most important issues for us to face. So what we’re going to do here is we are going to let you think about what we just said here and come back in a second for another segment. And when we come back for this segment, you’ll have time to get something to drink, come back, sit down, go on your computer, watch wherever you’re watching this on, and check out what comes next, which is immigration and some other very powerful closing arguments that they made and what this says about the future Democrats and where they might be going in this first debate. I’m here with two of my colleagues and dear friends— Kimberly Moffitt and Lester Spence. And we’ll all be back. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Take care. Don’t go away.

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Lester Spenceis an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. He specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics in the wake of the neoliberal turn. An award winning scholar. In 2013, he received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award for his book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. As a teacher in 2009, he received an Excellence in Teaching Award. He can regularly be heard on National Public Radio and the Marc Steiner Show.