Friday, June 28, 2019
Friday, June 28, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Friday, June 28, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Two Nights, Four Hours, Twenty Democrats, and a Swerve to the Left: The First ‘Debate’ of the 2020 Election Cycle
Well, Americans have now had two nights and four hours of what was called “debate.” The first major organized debate of the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination cycle. The candidates were divided into two different groups of 10. Even though there are 24 serious contenders, at least they are defined, for the Democratic nomination, the rule set in advance for the debates meant that four of those candidates were so minor in the rankings that they did not earn a place on either night of the debate.
We were told that the Democratic Party had established two separate nights so that there would be an adequate opportunity for candidates to be heard, more likely with 10 candidates on stage than 20. We were also told and presumably should believe that it was a matter of chance as to how cards were pulled in order to establish which candidates appeared on which night, but it was severely imbalanced.
On the first night, only one of the five leading candidates appeared on stage; on Thursday night, no less than four. It was Elizabeth Warren who dominated the stage in anticipation of the first debate and for the most part she emerged unscathed from the experience. The dynamic to this is very interesting. When you do have this kind of debate, especially this early in a presidential nomination cycle, those who are the front-runners are often targeted by those who lack the front-runner status precisely because they are vulnerable to damage in the embarrassing context of some kind of wrong answer or inadequate answer or some other kind of faux pas that might appear in the highly publicized televised debates.
Elizabeth Warren did not suffer any of those indignities on Wednesday night, but what did become very clear is the leftward trajectory of the Democratic Party. If you were to compare the debates held Wednesday and Thursday night with the debates of any previous Democratic election cycle, you would have noted a very interesting difference and the differences that shift to the left.
It was evident in the debate Wednesday and Thursday night on questions, for example, of healthcare and immigration, but also on the question of abortion. Even though the Democratic Party has been basically pro-abortion for the last generation, although it would have previously style itself as pro-choice, the reality is that by the time you get to the 2016 Democratic Party platform, it's openly calling for the elimination of the Hyde Amendment, preventing taxpayer money in the form of Medicaid for being used to pay for abortion.
The Democratic Party took that step in 2016. The interesting thing is that in the year 2020 that has become, if anything, the baseline, and the candidates are doing their very best to place themselves to the left of that baseline.
The Washington Post in an article that described the “leftward drift of the Democratic Party in stark relief in the debates” indicated that on the issue of abortion, "No one advocated for any limits on abortion rights." That's what is starkly different. “No one advocated for any limits on abortion rights.” What makes that even more historically interesting is that on the platform was a candidate such as Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States, who covering about four decades in the United States Senate, had cast many votes, offering at least some limitations either upon the funding of abortion. For that matter, also, he had indicated a moral opposition to abortion even though he said that would not affect his votes as a senator.
He had been known as the defender of the Hyde Amendment, but of course that was reversed under pressure from the Democratic Party process just in the last several weeks. It was interesting on Thursday night to see New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand do her very best to move even further to the left on this issue in an even more radical pro-abortion position. But she found herself relatively unable to do that precisely because the entire field appeared to be wanting to move with her.
On the first night of the debate, as I said, Elizabeth Warren basically held her own, probably gaining no new ground but not losing any on the other side. In the meantime, New York mayor, Bill de Blasio and New Jersey senator, Cory Booker, both began to score some points for pugnaciousness, but that's unlikely actually be translated into votes in the primary or caucus system. That's because the bottom line is that these debates don't matter a great deal. It's very difficult for anyone to break out positively.
The most important dynamic at this point is not allowing injury to one's campaign, but on Wednesday night there was a candidate who was probably severely injured and that was former Texas congressman, Beto O'Rourke. He was injured precisely because he did not do anything to move himself into the front ranks of the candidates. On Thursday night, the big loser was likely, as I mentioned, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand because she also did nothing to move herself into the front rank of the candidates.
I'm not even going to individually mention the “also-rans” who failed to make much of an impression either Wednesday or Thursday night, but the interesting thing to note here is that the field will almost immediately start to winnow. Why? Because the money is going to shift towards the perceived front-runners. That's how money works in the democratic process. That is how political campaigns are largely made or broken at this stage in a presidential campaign. The candidates that starve for money eventually drop out of the race.
As I said, the two nights were not at all equal when it came to the marquee candidates. Elizabeth Warren was the only one of the candidates perceived to be in the top five who appeared in the debate on Wednesday night. Thursday night, quite different. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and California Senator Kamala Harris, they were all on the stage in Thursday night's debate.
I will go on and say that the big winner on Thursday night, I believe, will be understood to have been Senator Harris. The former attorney general of California acted like she knew what she was doing on that platform to the expense of others, most particularly, the former vice president Joe Biden. The most interesting and likely memorable exchange that took place during the Thursday night debate was between the former vice president and the California senator.
Vice President Biden has been on the defensive in the Democratic race because of illustrations he has given of the senate career in working in a bipartisan and also in a consensus manner. He specifically mentioned his experience decades ago with working with senators who were segregationists. This led to an outcry, first of all, from Senator Cory Booker but also, as you saw on the stage Thursday night, from Senator Harris, and Senator Harris did what others have not done. She personalized the situation pointing to herself as a little girl who was only in the second year of a desegregated public school system.
The former vice president was in a very difficult position here because he has run on the idea that he can build a consensus, that he can work in a bipartisan manner, and that what is missing in American politics is respect that can build consensus and coalitions. But the illustrations he gives are from the fairly distant past in American politics, and many of the people he has mentioned were outright segregationists.
The press has given a lot of attention to this, but it has frustrated me that the press has not made clear that the senators he mentioned were not Republicans, but rather were Democrats. The opposition to civil rights in the United States Senate was largely from Southern Democrats, not from Republican senators.
The civil rights legislation that passed in the 1960s was passed largely by a coalition of Democrats along with the majority of Republican senators. Without those Republican senators, the civil rights legislation would not have happened. It was a unique partnership between the president of the United States at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Everett Dirksen, who was the minority leader, the Republican leader in the United States Senate.
But another part of Biden's problem here is that he has a history, a history longer politically than any of the other candidates, and if you have that history, of course you can point back to experience, but your opponents are going to point back to that very same experience.
Taking the issues of healthcare and immigration, first on healthcare, you saw the candidates on both nights again moving even further to the left and the moderators set that up. That's an interesting aspect of these debates as well. The moderators pushed the candidates in a direction of answering questions that appeared to be inflected to the left, and that began on the issue of healthcare. By the time the debates were over, it became pretty clear that the dynamic in the Democratic Party is going to be toward some kind of single payer national health insurance and perhaps even the elimination of the very possibility of private health insurance. That's going to be a big problem with the American people.
On immigration, the movement was even more clear when you saw the candidates falling over themselves to try to argue for what they called immigration reform, sometimes comprehensive immigration reform, but what they were really talking about was basically open borders. That became more and more clear when in both nights the question came as to whether the candidates were willing to decriminalize coming into the country illegally.
On Thursday night, the moderators were so specific as to say changing the illegality of entering the country illegally from being a criminal act to merely a civil act. That will be a monumental change in American immigration policy and law. The bottom line is that the Democratic Party is moving towards an open advocacy of open borders. They're not likely to say that as out loud as they really intend, but it becomes very clear that they would not intend to deport anyone for any reason, but rather to call for a path to citizenship for everyone.
Then just to make the point even more emphatically, when you put the two issues together of health care and immigration, the moderators asked the question about whether or not undocumented immigrants should be covered by the national health insurance policy. This should remind us of what Milton Friedman said is an economic axiom a generation ago: you cannot possibly simultaneously have open borders and the welfare state.
There were a couple of other interesting moments in the Thursday night debate. One of them was the presence of Marianne Williamson as a candidate. What makes her interesting is the fact that she made her fame as a new age guru and author. The amazing thing is that she met the qualifications for involvement in the debate. She offered a bit of new age nostalgia in the race, hearkening back to her days as a bestselling author in the 1990s. In her final comment, she claimed to be able to look into Donald Trump's heart and to see what he had done in the hearts of Americans and she pledged that she would meet him on his own terrain, and her campaign was a transformative campaign of reaching into the hearts and souls of Americans with love.
The other interesting moment was when South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg lamented what he said was the absence of any conversation about faith in the Democratic campaign. He explicitly acknowledged that the Democratic Party is more secular than the Republican Party, saying that this was understandable given the party's commitment to what he described as the separation of church and state.
What they actually have practiced is the separation of religion and politics. Buttigieg interestingly didn't even really offer any understanding of how he believed that faith should function in politics or in the presidential campaign. He merely pointed to an accusation that Donald Trump had misused faith in the political process. That's not even the really interesting aspect. The interesting point is that not one of the other candidates seem to even acknowledge that Pete Buttigieg had raised the issue at all, virtually making the point about the secularity of the Democratic Party. He was basically allowed to say what he wanted to say and the rest of the candidates just went on as if he hadn't said anything at all.
There will of course be more debates, but what's really interesting before we go forward in worldview analysis is understanding how the debates came about and how they actually function. They are really best understood as a form of performance art. Intelligent citizens, thinking Christians, watching what's going on have to recognize these aren't really even debates. If you want to look to debates, look at the campaign between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln at the midpoint of the 19th century. Those were debates.
These weren't debates, and it's also important to recognize that the debates are a phenomenon of the media age. There was no organized presidential debate between candidates all the way from Abraham Lincoln to the campaign in 1960 between Senator Edward Kennedy and then vice president Richard Nixon. Those debates were also not really debates, but they were presented to the American people as debates and for the first time they were shown to a national audience, the two candidates facing off on issues.
Why are they not really debates? It is because in a genuine debate format, the candidates themselves in a more organized and disciplined manner would have to talk about their own policies, make arguments for them, answer criticisms of them, and offer some kind of documentation and evidence in order to make a convincing case. What we saw the last two nights was simply a form of performance art by sound bite.
Now, that's not necessarily completely uninteresting, but intellectually there just isn't much there. The candidates are, if anything, as I said, playing defense, trying to avoid any damage, they try at least to throw a few blows here and there that might damage another one or the candidates, and they don't want to say anything that a rival candidate can turn into a television commercial against them. They have to watch their words very, very carefully. What they don't say is actually far more important than what they do say.
There's something else to understand here and that is that the media thrive on the same kind of energy. The media need the headlines that this happened and that happened. This question was asked, this was the answer. This candidate succeeded, this candidate failed. This one is likely to be hurt, that one was likely to gain. That's how the media play the game. It offers an entire new constellation of headlines that will last for several days, and the cycle also works from the debates or what are called the debates to the polls.
Now, there will be an entire range of polls claiming to quantify the response to the candidates, all 20 of them, over the past two nights of debate. Here's where again, I have to come back to the fact that the big numbers are actually going to be dollars, not points in a poll concerning support. The big issue is going to be which candidates see their campaigns falter financially. There's another thing that follows that, and that is energy in the campaign. Pretty soon candidates who fall to the back rank simply aren't even acknowledged by the other candidates anymore.
The Biggest Winners From Both Nights of the Democratic Presidential Debate? Expansive Government, the Welfare State, and the Abortion Industrial Complex
The big winners were last night, number one, an expansive federal government. No comment made by any of the candidates in either of the nights offered any suggestion of any limitation upon the growth of the federal government. Instead, second, the big winner last night was the welfare state because the candidates again fell all over each other trying to offer an expansion of federal benefits even with the new federal programs without any responsibility for answering how they were going to be funded. This was especially clear when it came to questions concerning health care. The candidates basically said everyone should have everything and it should cost everyone nothing. Furthermore, the everyone would not even be limited to citizens of the United States.
The third big winner in these debates was the abortion industrial state because it became even more clear as the candidates ricocheted off of one another that they are not only going to utter any word about any possible limitation upon any abortion that might happen, but rather they are going to continue to repackage this as a woman's reproductive health and basically encourage abortion under every circumstance declaring that it is not even a moral wrong but is a societal good and one for which the taxpayer should pay.
Given the way the national conversation is now shaping up about the 2020 campaign, I think the assessment by James Hohmann in the Washington Post is likely to be accurate. He wrote, “President Trump was rarely mentioned, but nonetheless the debate,” he said, "highlighted the party's leftward lurch since he took office and offered a reminder as the race enters its next phase that the 2020 election will probably shape up more as a choice between two radically different visions of America's future than a referendum on the incumbent's performance."
As our thoughts about the debate come to an end, that is probably the most important assessment that the race is now shaping up "as a choice between two radically different visions of America's future." We saw that over the last couple of nights and we're going to see it even more acutely in the weeks and months ahead. A presidential race like this as an argument in process, so get ready. There's a lot of process to come.
Big Decisions Handed Down in the Last Week of the Supreme Court Term: Free Speech, the Administrative State, Gerrymandering, and the Citizenship Census Question
Next, we shift to the Supreme Court of the United States. Over the last few days, four big decisions the court handed down, all of them in cases closely watched. On Monday, the court handed down decisions in a case concerning trademark protection. What's really interesting in this case is that the company and the trademark in question is not one I can even mention on The Briefing. That's really the point. It is obscene. It is profane. But the Supreme Court of the United States, all nine justices of the Supreme Court in their rulings came to the conclusion that the patent and trademark office has no business making discrimination about what images or words are immoral and as the Wall Street Journal said, "Thus excluded from the benefits of trademark registration."
Now from a worldview perspective, what's really interesting about this case, it's the fact that the division in the court wasn't cleanly liberal and conservative. It really breaks down into a different worldview divide between more libertarian and less libertarian. The Supreme Court going all the way back to the beginning of our constitutional system has seen itself as the protector of the basic rights respected in the U.S. Constitution—freedom of speech as one of the most important of those rights.
One of the hardest questions faced by the court throughout its history is whether or not there should be any limitations upon free speech and if so, how those limitations would be justified and legislatively defined.
In the ruling handed down on Monday, the justices said, "The First Amendment does not allow the government to penalize views just because many people, whether rightly or wrongly, see them as offensive." Justice Elena Kagan wrote the majority opinion. Justice Kagan is one of the more liberal justices, but in her opinion, she was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. In that listing, you actually had the most liberal justices generally lined up with the most conservative justices. That's worthy of our attention. It is because this issue came down to a free speech question.
In a decision that was handed down on Wednesday, the highest court was unanimous in the decision but extremely divided upon the reasoning. The case was Kisor v. Wilkie, and the basic issue at stake was the power of regulatory agencies to basically serve as judge, jury and executioner. This is about the administrative state that was made very clear by the conservative justices who agreed with the liberals on the particular question of this case, but in their reasoning went so far as to say that the administrative state itself is an unconstitutional overreach of federal power.
Adam Liptak defined the decision this way, "The Supreme Court cut back on the power of administrative agencies, a central goal of the conservative legal movement, but it refused to overrule two key precedents to the frustration of four conservative justices." The background to this is a 1984 Supreme Court decision known as Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. In that, a majority of the justices supported the administrative state all the way to arguing that federal bureaucrats and agencies should have the ability to determine their own regulations and for that matter, even the penalties of their regulations, and furthermore, that deference should be given to those regulatory agencies on such questions.
This puts enormous authority into the hands of unelected bureaucrats, which is one of the central issues of constitutional concern here. Conservatives are largely united in believing that this Chevron deference, that is the deference indicated in this decision towards bureaucratic agencies, is a basic problem. It's unconstitutional and they have pressed for a reversal, but Wednesday's decision did not reverse, but it did largely modify that deference.
It's also, again, interesting that in this case the justices were unanimous in the decision, but not in the reasoning. How does that work out? Well, the opinions that were divided on the rationale set the stage for how the court is likely to consider these issues in the future.
The court waited until yesterday to release their rulings in two other big cases. Robert Barnes of the Washington Post rightly described the most significant of the cases with these words: "The Supreme Court's conservatives decided Thursday that federal courts do not have a role to play in deciding whether partisan gerrymandering goes too far, giving a dominant political party in a state leeway to draw electoral maps that preserve or even expand its power."
Now, one interesting historical question is where in the world did the word gerrymander come from? It goes back to 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry rewrote the electoral maps within his state to give a partisan advantage. It created one district that had the appearance of a salamander, thus the new word. You add “Gerry” to “salamander” and come up with “gerrymander.” It has now entered America's political lexicon and interestingly enough, it's now been exported to other nations as well who have no idea about the existence of Elbridge Gerry or the salamander.
The word is now used basically to describe the process whereby the states, all 50 of the states, set their processes for establishing congressional boundaries, and these have been contentious all the way through American history. The most important issue in the decision handed down by the Supreme Court on Thursday is that in a 5-4 majority, the conservative majority came to the clear conclusion not that the boundaries were rightly or wrongly drawn in two different states, one of them conservative, one of them liberal, that is one to a Republican advantage, one to a democratic advantage, but rather that the Supreme Court of the United States lacked any authority or competency to rule on the question.
The Republican map was in the state of North Carolina. The Democratic map was the state of Maryland. The most important issue here from a worldview perspective is that a majority of the justices felt that it was not the responsibility of the Supreme Court to rule in this question, and of course there's been a lot of push back to this. The headlines in the major media tell the story of how the elites are responding to the decision.
The Wall Street Journal offered the headline, “Supreme Court declines to set limits on political gerrymandering.” The Washington Post headline: “Supreme Court says federal courts don't have a role in deciding partisan gerrymandering claims.” The Atlantic ran a headline blaming the chief justice: "John Roberts says partisan gerrymandering is not his problem." It runs against the logic of a progressivist court and an expansionist government to believe that any branch of government would say, “This is actually not within our authority nor is it within our competence.”
Once again, you have to reverse the question. What if the Supreme Court had ruled yesterday that it did have the competence to decide this question? Well, inevitably the Supreme Court would then have become the ultimate arbiter for all 50 states on how the state's congressional districts should be drawn. That was clearly not a power that was given to the Supreme Court in the Constitution itself. It was a power given to the states. The officials in those states may handle that responsibility rightly or wrongly, but the point made by the court yesterday is that the citizens of those states by electing those state officials have the right to determine who's going to make that decision and it should be their elected officials, not the Supreme Court of the United States.
In the other decision handed down yesterday the key question was the census to be undertaken in 2020 and the question as to whether or not the Commerce Department that is charged with that responsibility could put in the census apparatus a question concerning citizenship.
That's actually a very important issue. Previous versions of the census have had that question in it and it would seem to be an important question for the federal government to know. Those on the left have argued that the very existence of the question would intimidate some persons from answering and thus, there would be an undercount in states in which there's a large number of undocumented persons.
The interesting development in this decision was that the chief justice of the United States sided with the four liberal justices in ruling against the Commerce Department and thus ruling against the citizenship question. This has led to a lot of consternation amongst conservatives in the United States who are now asking in both the question that was handed down on the regulatory state and the question on the census whether Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is signaling that he now intends to be a moderate swing vote rather than a conservative.
There are obviously big questions here with worldview implications, not only for the present but for the future. That means that the next term of the United States Supreme Court is likely to be even more interesting than this.
Exclusion in the Name of Non-Exclusion: The Israel Folau Saga Continues
Finally, we understand that sometimes big decisions with vast importance are made not by courts but by other entities and in this as a warning for us all. The entity in this case is Australia's GoFundMe site and the person at the center of the story is Israel Folau, the famous former Australian rugby player who was sacked by Rugby Australia precisely because in public on social media, he had affirmed his belief as a Christian in the sinfulness of homosexuality.
As Premier in the United Kingdom reports Folau "launched a webpage last week to raise money for the legal cost of trying to get his job back, which he said would cost $3 million. On Monday, it was taken down after receiving about $760,000, with the GoFundMe regional manager saying, “After a routine period of evaluation, we've concluded that this campaign violates our terms of service.” In the official statement, the company said, “As a company, we are absolutely committed to the fight for equality for LGBTIQ+ people and fostering an environment of inclusivity. While we welcome GoFundMe's engaging in diverse civil debate, we do not tolerate the promotion of discrimination or exclusion.'"
Notice the irony here. In the name of non-exclusion, GoFundMe Australia has announced it will exclude. Australia GoFundMe of course does not have the cultural authority of the Supreme Court of the United States but make no mistake, this decision by GoFundMe sends a very clear signal. This decision says if you dare to stand against the moral revolution and stand outside the new boundaries that the elites will set for appropriate social expression, then you will be excluded.
You'll even be excluded from trying to defend yourself by the use of the GoFundMe site. In the name of non-exclusion they will exclude and make no mistake, they will exclude.
Finally, this reminds Christians that there are two not unrelated arenas of battle. One is the courts and then even more importantly, the court of public opinion. We also understand that the stakes when it comes to worldview in both arenas could not be higher.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
Today brings an end to the 2018-2019 season of The Briefing. I really appreciate you listening. We're going to take our break in July, and we will be back on Thursday, August the 1st for the 2019-2020 season of The Briefing. I certainly hope you have a wonderful, God-blessed summer and that you will be back with me on Thursday, August 1st for the new season.
I can't tell you how much I appreciate you listening, and I'm so thankful that you find The Briefing helpful. No doubt there will be plenty to talk about when we're back together on August 1st.
For more information, go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.