J’Accuse Debates

J’Accuse. I accuse. Originally, an open letter by Émile Zola to the president of the French Republic in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who had been accused of treason by the French army. Zola was not debating the French Republic – he was accusing them.

So, to the seeming delight of more than a few pundits, were the Democratic presidential candidates in the recent primary “debates.”

I watched the first couple start to finish, when they were all being nice to each other, except for Kamala Harris (my favorite, but not in that first debate*).

By the time the second debate was over, I was sick of hearing about healthcare and the minute ways in which everybody’s plan varied from the others. The bits and piece I heard from other debates did nothing to assure me that much else of substance was on the menu. I kept wondering why each of them didn’t just plump for universal healthcare and stop trying to convince us that their way was the only highway. It would be Congress, after all, that would ultimately shape the bill. I wanted to ask Bernie Sanders if he would sign a public option bill instead of Medicare for All, if that is what Congress gave him. And Joe Biden if he would sign Medicare for All, should the occasion arise.

But most of all, I wanted the moderators to pose questions that might indicate their response to situations likely to arise during a presidency or questions that asked how they planned to put the wheels of government back on the track. I’m looking at you, Departments of Energy and Interior, Justice and State – well, all of them, actually.

Given the state of our present resources, how will you respond to a widespread outbreak of coronavirus? That is a question I wished could have been asked in the last debate. I did hear a question asked about it, but the answer so far as I could determine lay mostly in actions that *should* have already been done, not in actions that could be done given depleted resources.

I heard very little about infrastructure – high speed rail? Bridge repair and construction? Anybody? About foreign policy? Education? Do you have a plan ready for the reunification of migrant families? Now, granted I didn’t watch much of the rest of them – I tuned one out when I heard Elizabeth Warren (and I like her) picking nits from one paragraph of Bernie Sanders’ plan for Medicare for all – another when I heard Bernie promise to support pot farms run by African- and Native-Americans. Cool, Bernie, but how are you going to convince even a Democratic Congress to go along with that? Poke your finger and glare at them?

But even if I opted out of watching, one would think that a pundit or two would have told us something about Klobuchar’s plan to locate the missing children, if she had one, or Mayor Pete’s plan to build high speed rail across the country, if he had mentioned one. Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s start one from San Francisco and one from New York and have a race. See, that would have made news. And hey – did anybody get down and real about the details of the Green New Deal? Climate change was, if I could judge by media coverage, an also-ran.

Instead we had moderators reminding one candidate what another had said about them and asking what that candidate had to say about that, what seemed like hours of debating minute details of various universal healthcare plans, and very few specifics detailing the outcome of Trump policies on any one issue.

Here’s an example of Trump policies in action in the EPA: Criminal prosecutions are at a 30-year low, and many violations that would have been prosecuted in the past are now being negotiated with companies. Question: Would you ask your Justice Department to work with the EPA to pursue those violators? What, if anything, should be done to hold the current EPA administrators to account?

As the field narrows, I would hope to get more actual debate and fewer accusations, but the Charleston “debate” shattered any hope of that. It reminded me of the scene in “Fellowship of the Ring” where elves, men and dwarves – even one wizard – were all arguing about what to do with the Ring of Power. Frodo saw them all reflected in the Ring itself, as if the Ring were acting on them in the moment.

I guess the Presidency of the United States is the current Ring of Power, and that all the combatants mean to use it to do good. We have seen what it can do when the Ring Bearer is such a man as Donald Trump. The debates are supposed to reveal the one who can bear it, who can use the power without being subsumed by it. I do believe there is one or more who can, but you couldn’t prove it to me by this year’s round of “debates.”

*Kamala Harris might take note that it was her target, Joe Biden, who won hands down in South Carolina, a state where the black vote made all the difference.