Last week’s debate didn’t connect with viewers or mobilize the base.


Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Well, last night was yet another Democratic presidential debate. Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Last night’s debate was pretty white. And these debates can become repetitive, but the larger question is beyond this and what we saw last night or didn’t watch if you didn’t watch, what do they tell us about the state of the democratic party and the 2020 election that is looming in front of us? The election that some say may be the most important election of the last century. We just watched the British election where most people loved Labor’s platform but voted for the right wing. What does that say for what the United States might be facing?

We’re joined once again by Bill Fletcher Jr., who is a racial justice, labor, and international activist; author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions, Solidarity Divided, and his latest work, The Man Who Fell From the Sky. Bill, welcome. Good to have you back.

BILL FLETCHER JR: Thanks, Marc. I’m glad to be back.

MARC STEINER: Let me just start with this. I think one of the glaring things for some people was that there was only one person of color on the stage; that was Andrew Yang.

BILL FLETCHER JR: Right.

MARC STEINER: He was asked this question. This was his response.

AMNA NAWAZ: Mr. Yang, a new question. The democratic party relies on Black, Hispanic and Asian voters, but you are the only candidate of color on the stage tonight and the entire field remains overwhelmingly white. What message do you think this sends to voters of color?

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ANDREW YANG: Why am I the lone candidate of color on this stage? Fewer than 5% of Americans donate to political campaigns. You know what you need to donate to political campaigns, disposable income. The way we fix this, is we take Martin Luther King’s message of a guaranteed minimum income, a freedom dividend of $1000 a month for all Americans. I guarantee if we had a freedom dividend of $1000 a month, I would not be the only candidate of color on this stage tonight.

MARC STEINER: I’m not quite sure that’s why are fewer people of color on the stage. But it’s an interesting answer and people do love to hear him. So what’s your analogy? How important is that? What does that say to America and to communities of color around the country?

BILL FLETCHER JR: This is a tough question Marc, because the way I look at it is this. You started with a very big field. And in that field, of the candidates of color, in my opinion, there was only one that was progressive.

MARC STEINER: Who’s that?

BILL FLETCHER JR: That’s Julian Castro. Julian Castro.

MARC STEINER: Okay.

BILL FLETCHER JR: I think that Kamala Harris, Booker, Tulsi Gabbard are at best inconsistently progressive. I wasn’t looking just to have representation, racial representation. I’m looking for the politics and the people that not simply look like me, but represent the politics of racial justice and the representatives of the politics of economic justice, et cetera. It’s not surprising.

I think that part of what Yang was raising; the first part was a good point, which is that US elections depend on financial contributions. Candidates of color in general, are going to be coming from behind the curve. Now there’s a separate issue about whether or not the standards that was set by the DNC for this debate should have been altered so that you had greater diversity. Maybe. It’s not the main thing that I’m focusing on, Marc.

MARC STEINER: What’s the main thing you’re focusing on?

BILL FLETCHER JR: The politics. Who can kick Trump in his rear decisively, lead, and inspire a whole set of, not just a whole generation, but inspire down-ballot candidates. I’m still a Bernie fan. I’m not opposed to… let me put it in a different way. I’m going to vote for whichever Democrat receives the nomination because we have to remove Trump from Office.

The person that I think will inspire the most is Sanders. I think that Warren is a very good candidate. I wished that Julian Castro had more energy behind him, but perhaps he would be a great Vice Presidential Candidate. But I’m looking at the politics, Marc. That’s what I want to know. I want to know who’s going to take this country in a different direction.

MARC STEINER: Let’s pick up on that for just a moment before we watch this other clip. That seems to be the biggest question as I was watching the end of the debate in the clips early this morning before I came in here to the studio. I interviewed Rachel Shabi earlier today, who writes for The Nation and she’s a British commentator. We were talking about the election that just happened and what that says for the future, what it may say about the elections that the United States is facing.

One of the things that Rachel was commenting on was that all of Labour’s positions where the most popular positions among the British electorate at large. All sectors. But they voted right and went right. So that to me was a bigger warning sign then Labor losing itself and how they lost and Corbyn and all the other arguments they want to make about Corbyn and Sanders. Those weren’t the issues to me, but that particular fact was glaring to me. How does that play out here, do you think? Or does it?

BILL FLETCHER JR: I have to give you two answers. One is that we have to be very careful about what conclusions we draw about the United States from the British elections. One of the huge things in a British election was Brexit. I think that there’s every reason to believe that Brexit’s fatigue absolutely affected the election, that the Conservatives were targeted like a guided missile on that question. Whereas Labour had good platforms, but a very obscure message.

The other thing that strikes me which I think is relevant to the United States though, is that in order to win, you need to build a broad united front. It’s not clear to me that Corbyn was really out there building that kind of united front in order to defeat the conservatives. That’s a lesson that is directly applicable here. That there’s going to be a lot of middle forces that are going to be ambivalent up until election day. We’ve got to have a broad tent. That means that our message and our narrative, our storyline has to be clear and it has to be compelling, but not milk toast.

What I worry about from the DNC, the Democratic National Committee and the leadership of the Democratic establishment, is that their conclusion from Britain is that we need milk toast. We did a milk toast candidate who is not going to piss anybody off, who reached the so-called middle, right? As opposed to understanding what we need is someone that is going to inspire the base and that inspiration will become contagious.

MARC STEINER: I think that’s clear and the question people argue about, who that candidate is and many people think it’s Bernie. Some people think it’s other folks. There was an interesting interchange. One was between Buttigieg and Warren. It was the heart of the question of money in politics and also is how this might play out in a larger sense. The other one was Warren’s quick answer when they ask her about taxing the wealthy. But let’s look at the Buttigieg, Warren thing first. Just for a second.

ELIZABETH WARREN: The Mayor just recently had a fundraiser that was held in a wine cave full of crystals and served $900 a bottle wine. Think about who comes to that. He had promised that every fundraiser he would do would be open door. But this one was closed door. We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke filled rooms would not pick the next President of the United States. Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next President of the United States.

TIM ALBERTA: Mr. Mayor, your response.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: According to Forest Magazine, I am literally the only person on this stage who’s not a millionaire or billionaire. So if… This is important. This is the problem issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.

MARC STEINER: Good response. This becomes part of the issue of money in this election of how they play this. I don’t know. I just want to play one more little piece here. Then we’ll leap into how this may affect the election. This is a question that Elizabeth Warren was asked about the taxation on wealth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every candidate on this stage has proposed tax increases on the wealthy. But you have a specially ambitious plans, that apart from healthcare, would hike taxes an additional $8 trillion over the decade. How do you answer top economists who say taxes of this magnitude would stifle growth and investment?

ELIZABETH WARREN: You’re just wrong.

BILL FLETCHER JR: I love that answer.

MARC STEINER: You do?

BILL FLETCHER JR: Yeah.

MARC STEINER: Don’t you think that’s just wrong?

BILL FLETCHER JR: Sorry. That’s right. No, I think it’s very important. Because what a lot of people forget, excuse me, is how heavily the rich and corporations were taxed after World War II, into the 1950s, and early sixties. It was during that time that the economy was booming. We forget that and act as if none of that ever happened. There’s still this peculiar belief out there of a trickle down economics. I think that’s part of what’s going on. But you don’t see… Marc, here’s the thing: In terms of the first exchange, this is my concern. Buttigieg is basically right in this sense that we live in a country where elections are by at-large, able to be moved based on the money the candidates are able to get in. There are certain exceptional circumstances. People need money. They need a lot of money and this is not just the Presidential Elections.

There was a point when I was going to run back in 1989 in Boston for State Representative. The amount of money that I would have needed was prohibitive. It was just obscene. So I think that arguing over this is wrong. The argument needs to be about how do elections get financed as well as how long an election season we should have. Both of those things. That’s what I wish that Buttigieg and Warren were really arguing about. Now, if she wants to make an argument that he is being corrupted and we can demonstrate that. That’s one thing we should take on. It feels to me that it’s missing the point. It’s not just about an individual statement by a candidate about where they’re getting money, it’s about what is their stand on the financing of elections.

MARC STEINER: Do you think that’s important to people at large?

BILL FLETCHER JR: I think part of what’s important to people at large, is that we’re in a permanent election cycle. This relates to something about the debate. We are in a permanent election cycle where it’s like this stuff never ends. Because it never ends, the candidates always have to be raising money. That means that increasing, they’ll hit up a lot of small donors, but they have to hit major donors. This becomes a lot of their time. I’ve spoken with Congress people about how they spend their time and the amount of time that they spend raising money is obscene when they’re supposed to be governing. Right? I think that for regular people, yes, this does matter. The other part of it, Marc, is this–this may sound like a tangent, but forgive me.

MARC STEINER: It’s all right. Go ahead.

BILL FLETCHER JR: I think that the first debate was fine. The problem is that after debate number one, and this is not just true in this election cycle, the debates become redundant. We by and large don’t learn much more about the candidate that we didn’t know from the first debate. Some points are underlined.

I think that there needs to be a very different format, either with just one topic or preferably where you have something like a Meet the Press format where you have a candidate that is interviewed; subjected to an in-depth interview by multiple journalists they are asked hard questions and you have that maybe for an hour each. My guess is that people would watch something like that. Because that’s where you start to learn more about not simply the debating style, but you learn something about what does this person think? How do they respond under certain kinds of pressure? What happens when someone comes back at them and pushes them? These are the things that I would like to see. I didn’t feel like I learned anything new last night.

MARC STEINER: Right. I agree. I think that the one person that much of the center is pushing hard and the establishment is pushing hard. He’s Vice President Biden.

BILL FLETCHER JR: Yes.

MARC STEINER: They see him as the only person to take on Trump. We’ll talk about that after we watch this clip as we conclude. This is Biden being pushed on the African papers.

AMNA NAWAZ: As Vice President, what did you know about the state of the war? And do you believe that were honest with the American people about it?

JOE BIDEN: The reason I can speak to this is well known and if you followed it. My view on Afghanistan. I was sent by the President, before we got sworn in, to Afghanistan to come back with a report. I said there was no comprehensive policy available. I got in a big fight for a long time with the Pentagon because I strongly opposed the nation building notion we set about. Rebuilding that country as a whole nation is beyond our capacity.

AMNA NAWAZ: Mr Biden, the question was about your time in the White House though and in that-

JOE BIDEN: I’m talking about the White House.

AMNA NAWAZ: In that Washington Post report, there’s a Senior National Security Official, who said that there was constant pressure from the Obama White House to produce figures showing the troop surge was working. I’m quoting from the report here, despite hard evidence to the contrary.

JOE BIDEN: I’m the guy, from the beginning, who argued that it was a big mistake to surge forces to Afghanistan. Period. We should not have done it.

MARC STEINER: I’m the guy. That’s one of his favorite lines. I’m the guy. See who we have, directly flying in the face of what the post printed and what was going on, but this is the person who supposed to carry the fight forward.

BILL FLETCHER JR: He should have started by saying, “You know what? We were wrong.”

MARC STEINER: Right.

BILL FLETCHER JR: If he had said that, he would have shaken the room. The reverberations would have been felt in Moscow. Right? We were wrong. Right? Because then people are willing to listen. What he was basically saying, is that while everyone else was doing the wrong thing, he was the one that was doing the Clarion call to try to bring people back to the truth. While there’s a possibility that was the case, the point was that he was part of an administration. He was number two. He needed to say to everyone last night, we were wrong. We were wrong, we were dead wrong. We made a mistake. Here’s the lessons that we can learn from the debacle in Afghanistan. He had said something like that, Hey man, I think a lot of people would be listening to him.

MARC STEINER: Finally, let me get your final thoughts here on this. I know you’re not oppression. None of us are, but what may be this–

BILL FLETCHER JR: Don’t be so sure.

MARC STEINER: I’m getting scared now. We’re talking about what this tells us about what’s being faced by this country in this 2020 election. A lot of people are talking about “Trump is going to win.” A lot of analysts are saying there’s no way to stop him, the Democrats cannot pull themselves together to do it. What are your thoughts?

BILL FLETCHER JR: It’s absurd. He can definitely be defeated. It really bothers me. All of these predictions here, 11 months in advance, they’re predictions based on an assumption that we’re in a normal situation. And we’re not. We have never had in office since perhaps the 19th century someone who was like this guy, where we have this very energized right-wing populous movement. We have a very energized opposition to this guy. Even though there might be people that under other circumstances would say, “Well, the Academy is doing pretty good, which is really an overstatement, so I’ll go for this.”

The corruption of this administration, the racism and misogyny has all kinds of people energized. That’s what we got to keep in mind. This is an unusual situation. It’s an extraordinary situation. What this really will come down to is the extent to which the Democrats are successful in mobilizing their base. The people who decided to sit out 2016 because they thought there was no difference between Trump and Hillary. Most of them, I would argue no better this time. The question is whether they can and will get to the polls. So no, I think it’s wrong to make this assumption that this guy has it.

MARC STEINER: Right. That’s a very important and powerful point between what we saw today with Christianity today coming out against Trump. The Billy Graham newspaper was founded-

BILL FLETCHER JR: That’s right.

MARC STEINER: By Billy Graham, calling him immoral. That’s a big piece of, of what people need to think about it and how you get back those was 8 million voters who voted for Obama and did not vote in this last election.

BILL FLETCHER JR: Right.

MARC STEINER: Those are critical pieces. Bill Fletcher, that’ll be the topic for the next time. Thank you so much for joining us.

BILL FLETCHER JR: Thank you. Pleasure.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all. Let us know what you think. Take care. Have a great holiday.