That old soft shoe

That old soft shoe

Did you catch the Democrats on Cable News Network the other night discussing the climate crisis?  Too bad—you missed some great dancing.  Not a debate, but a return to a series of town halls where they interact with the studio audience and a moderator but not each other, it seemed to be set up in the early summer pyramid format, with the front-runners in the middle, sloping downward to the least popular candidates in the polls around teatime and closing time at the disco, save for Amy Klobuchar, who somehow bogarted her way into the middle past Kamala Harris, who I heard had some droopy polls, but nothing that would put her below Klobuchar’s 2%.

In any case, I suspected that most of the candidates would avoid as far as possible saying much about climate change unless one counts treating it as one big opportunity for jobs programs and/or an economic boomlet.  I underestimated them a bit here, for most of the studio audience questioners were clearly activists of one stripe or the other, and most of the candidates got at least one tough question, the most hyped of these on the morning news being a youth who asked Joseph Biden why he was going to a fundraiser with an energy magnate tomorrow night when he had promised to steer clear of such, to which Lunchpail Joe, who was prickly all night, replied sharply that his buddy wasn’t an energy magnate.  When the kid wouldn’t let loose, mine host stepped in with a resume of the putative energy executive, which he did again some minutes later; methinks I might have heard the rustle of attorneys offstage.  Julian Castro’s tough question was what was the greatest environmental mistake he had made in his political career, upon which he stopped everything cold for a good fifteen seconds or so while he gazed mournfully at the floor.  I thought he was going to cay.  When he rejoined us, I figured he was going to seize an apparent lifeline he’d been thrown a few minutes earlier when a teen had upbraided him for supporting fracking when he was Mayor of San Antonio.  But it was not to be; he took off on an anecdote having to do, I think, mostly with some building permits he had granted from the mayor’s office.  Yang’s tough one on the night came from a Gothamite who was royally perturbed by his comment at the last debate that neither he nor anybody else could do anything much about global heating except prepare more evacuation plans, which he didn’t handle well; a few minutes later somebody else got on him for being infatuated with technical engineering our way out, which he did much better on.  Klobuchar’s nemeses were more timid, mostly getting after her for hating wolves and carrying water for BigAg, both of which she brushed aside, but I wouldn’t want to be a wolf during the Klobuchar administration. 

If Biden was prickly (he actually answered one questioner with “Because”), Andrew Yang was, as usual, too cool for school, as was Castro, most of the time, though he seems to struggle to escape terminal earnestness entirely.  The wonk of the night was Klobuchar, who left forty minutes strewn with proposals and facts and, at least mostly, stayed on the subject.  Kamala Harris was so scattershot that I despaired of picking anything to write about, unless wasting a few minutes musing on the fate of the world’s babies counts; perhaps she was answering a rather abstracted question which had been directed at Yang about why the rising generation should even care about bringing children into our messy world; Yang seized the opportunity to tell us about his autistic son.  And that was the closest approach of the whole seven hours to a discussion of population growth, which is the root of the whole problem, though somebody actually asked about it later (to Sanders), he was soon enough off and running about jobs again..     

Many of the candidates, especially the moderate ones, when emerging from the Iowa State Fair, busied themselves with half-carping, half-joking comments about how, when meeting the common man and identifying themselves as a Democratic candidate, were too often asked whether they wanted to stop them from eating beef.  The Democrats’ legendary obsession with special interests was indeed in full bloom as the evening passed.  A succession of food Nazis confronted most of the candidates with demands to hear their plans to get Americans to quit eating meat; none of the candidates handled the inquiry especially well, unless one counts Harris’ amusing meander through the nuances of her love for cheeseburgers, which could have come straight from Tommy Chong or Cheech Marin.  Less predictable, but only a little, since their responses evoked both Barack H. Obama’s “all of the above” energy plan and Hillary Clinton’s “I’m agnostic” responses were nuclear power enthusiasts, who seemed bound and determined to nail these eels to the wall.  Some took the bait; Yang, typically heading for Wonkville with a discursion of how much safer thorium-powered reactors were than uranium ones, and Castro wheeling out the ‘bridge fuel’ trope usually invoked to defend natural gas.   But Cory Booker left them both in the dust, with an outburst which started out as a rhapsody and ended as a passionate love song about nuclear power, featuring frequent reference to ‘new nuclear’, the only specificity forthcoming on that term being something about how the waste rods would ‘eat themselves’. Others weren’t having it.  Sanders, angrily (but I repeat myself) and the more mellow Harris both dissented, but on the oddly narrow ground of the side issue of waste disposal (further miniaturized by Harris into how Yucca Mountain was a trashing of states’ rights).  Elizabeth Warren was having even less of it all and brushed aside the question curtly, but still gave as her only reason the waste disposal issue.

But it was when somebody tried to get Warren to ring in on liking, or not, cheeseburgers, that she really shone.  She retorted that cheeseburgers, light bulbs (I will admit, an odd obsession of the moderators) and plastic straws were the sorts of things that Big Oil wanted them all to get bogged down in and that we needed to stick to real solutions as opposed to stirring up the common man’s hornet’s nest by sounding extremist on peripherals that were less, if at all, important, than the big stuff.  I hope that my campaign button will be here by the weekend.

One of those bigger issues which I’d have liked to hear a lot more about was transit in general and Amtrak specifically.  Biden and Booker have great records on Amtrak and transit and so probably deserve a pass, but the only other candidate who seemed to have heard of the institutions was Buttigieg, who added the amusing aisde that they didn’t have to be Japanese trains, they could be Italian, with the further entertainment of moderator of the moment Chris Cuomo flying into a mock frenzy and pointing out how much better the food would be on an Italian train, which Buttigieg, upon further reflection, had no problem with.

As for big ideas, there were only a few.  In addition to having to defend his interest in geoengineering, Yang wheeled out the idea of a constitutional amendment insisting on environmental protection, though exactly how this might work remained mysterious, and how anybody could possibly think that it would be ratified is an interesting epistimelogical phenomenon.  Castro was a little more light-hearted with a passing mention of his PAW programme.  That stands for Protecting Animals and Wildlife, and that was just about it on the night for any admission that this world houses non-human animals, the other being the young lady who called out Klobuchar as a wolf-hater.  Plants were even less in evidence, though Biden went on a bit about rainforest destruction, sounding more than ready to crack a few skulls to get it stopped.

Not a big idea, exactly, but William ‘Beto’ O’Rourke did provide a disaster movie-type scenario when an aspiring climate scientist asked him if he had consulted with or employed on staff a climate scientist, sounding only a little like somebody who was looking to be hired for said position.  In the best tradition of the political aspirant, O’Rourke didn’t really address the question, but he did offer that his views on climate change were informed by a book entitled The uninhabitable earth, and it set out in great detail the horrors that his 88-year- old son would face in 2100 if nothing or too little was done, which he outlined briefly as being highlighted by terrible climate-driven wars and indeed most of the globe being uninhabitable by humans, but also leaving hanging the question of whether the book was written by a climate scientist.  The book turned out to be on the shelf upstairs, so I checked it out for you.  It isn’t.  And I’m inclined to think that if he had a climate scientist on staff, he would have said so.  So the youth’s question may have gotten answered after all, in a sense.

So after seven weary hours, what was my takeaway?A sad one, mostly.Each and every candidate’s every answer was rewarded with applause.Except one.That would be Joseph Biden, who said nothing that merited their applause.Except when the applause light came on when he started and finished and they ran commercials, there the audience sat; Donald Trump would probably gotten a better response, or at least more of one.Even Booker’s ode to nuclear power got a certain amount of hesitant, nervous applause.Now let me say right here that Lunchpail Joe’s not my favorite candidate, nor do I think he’ll end up with the nomination.I don’t really even have that much buyin to the punditry’s conventional wisdom that he’s the most electable candidate.But the whole eerie episode reminded me of the disaster which ensued last time when too many Democrats sat on their hands or worse because they didn’t consider Secretary Clinton a perfect candidate.And if it can happen to Hillary Clinton, it could happen to Joseph Biden.And, as Biden would say, here’s the point: it’s all too likely to happen to anybody else who emerges as the Democratic candidate.