Putting aside for the moment the question of who won and who lost the Democratic presidential nomination debate on CNN Tuesday evening, let’s look instead at the truly big lessons that emanated from the proceedings, to wit:
-The Democratic Party has become the party of democratic socialism. There is not in the party today a serious debate about whether it should follow the general philosophy of Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, which is essentially the same philosophy that Barack Obama brought to the presidency nearly seven years ago. It is the philosophy of democratic socialism, the only difference between Sanders and Obama being that Sanders is willing to say so outright.
- On foreign policy, the Democratic Party offers a sharp departure from the Republicans. Among Democrats, there is a genuine debate on these matters, with serious distinctions and some emotion. Among Republicans, there is hardly any debate at all, except that Kentucky senator Rand Paul seeks to stand athwart the party’s prevailing neoconservative ethos (but hasn’t been doing it very effectively to date).
- The loser in the Democratic presidential race so far is the same loser we see in the Republican race—namely, the status quo. The political tumult of 2016 is telling us unmistakably that the voters don’t like the way things have been going and want a major departure. In the GOP race, this is manifest in the fact that polls show the top three contenders, with about half the poll numbers collectively, are the three non-politicians in the race. What Tuesday’s Democratic debate showed was that the Democratic contenders believe their voters are equally fed up with the status quo; they’re merely looking for different solutions.
Let’s look first at the matter of the party being a party of democratic socialism. Back in 1984, in the wake of Walter Mondale’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan, a Democratic centrist named Al From created a group called the Democratic Leadership Council, dedicated to pulling the party away from the liberalism that had guided it from the early-1970s through the mid-1980s. Mr. From started the group after he had been fired from his job as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus for telling the Wall Street Journal that Mondale’s presidential run represented “the last hurrah for Mondale’s part of the party.” From’s new group was remarkably successful, with its Exhibit A being the election and governing style of Bill Clinton as a kind of new breed centrist Democrat.
There is no Bill Clinton among the Democratic contenders today, with the possible exception of Jim Webb of Virginia, whose wan debate performance suggests he isn’t likely to be much of a factor in the race. This is not particularly surprising, given the impact of the country’s paltry economic growth of the past seven years. Hard times breed political agitation, and political agitation in the Democratic Party always veers left.
It’s instructive that the last time America seriously flirted with socialism was during the Great Depression. That’s when we had political candidates, including presidential candidates, who actually called themselves socialists. In today’s party, few besides Sanders are willing to embrace the appellation, but there wasn’t much debate Tuesday about Sanders’s major initiatives—breaking up the big banks (though Hillary Clinton wants to regulate them further instead); significant income redistribution through big tax increases on the wealthy and major increases in transfer payments; unprecedented minimum wage increases; mandated family leave; turning Social Security into a giant transfer-payment program; leveraging the climate change issue for further redistributionist initiatives; guaranteed health care for all Americans.
Much has been written about the Republicans’ rightward lurch of recent years, but the liberal media have been less attentive to the Democrats’ equally significant leftward drift. It was much in evidence Tuesday night. We likely have seen, at least for a significant time, the last hurrah for the Al From part of the party.
On foreign policy, Sanders emerged as a classic liberal isolationist. His rhetoric harks back to the Vietnam era, when liberal opposition to that Southeast Asian war fostered a strong aversion to American interventionism. Sanders called Syria “a quagmire within a quagmire” and added, “I will do everything I can to make sure the United States does not get involved in another quagmire.” He called the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria enforced by U.S. warplanes “a dangerous situation.” On the other hand, he touted his support for Bill Clinton’s intervention in Kosovo, which was justified almost entirely on humanitarian grounds rather than national interest. And he demonstrated an almost comical naivety when he suggested Russian president Vladimir Putin surely must regret his actions returning Crimea to the Russian fold through force.
Clinton’s views, on the other hand, put her in the camp of today’s humanitarian interventionists. She supported a no-fly zone, took the ISIS threat more seriously than most of her opponents, declared that the United States must “stand up to [Putin’s] bullying,” and called the U.S. intervention into Libya “smart power at its best.”
Webb emerged as the most serious “realist” in the debate, focused primarily on what he considered three serious U.S. “strategic failings”—the Iraq invasion and its enhancement of Iranian regional power; the naïve posturings of the Arab Spring; and the recent nuclear deal with Iran. He also identified U.S. relations with China as the country’s leading long-term strategic challenge. Whether Webb’s measured foreign policy views will have any impact on the race remains an open question, however. Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley seemed closer to the Sanders outlook than to Clinton’s.
The debate further reflected the insurgency sensibilities abroad in the electorate in this time of political turmoil. The emergence of Sanders is as powerful a phenomenon on the Democratic side as the crazy developments we’ve been witnessing in the GOP. O’Malley’s political outlook closely followed Sanders’s, and Clinton took on the Vermont socialist only around the edges—on approaches to addressing problems but not on questions of what the problems actually are.
Now an assessment of debate performances:
Clinton: Her performance helped explain why so many people have been saying that she will capture the nomination in a walk. She was smooth, polished, quick, and articulate. But her performance also helped explain why some people have been saying that ultimately her effort to cadge the nomination will fall short. She came across as just what voters are looking to avoid this cycle—an establishment candidate, deftly parsing distinctions, talking tactics, quick with the five-point program for this or that. There was no overarching vision and certainly no comprehensive critique of what ails America. Anyone wanting those things would have to look elsewhere, and there’s ample evidence that many people these days want precisely those things.
Sanders: The post-debate polls are likely to suggest he won the debate. He came across as a man of conviction, earnestness, seriousness, and verve. He does harbor an overarching vision and projects a comprehensive critique of what ails America. It’s the same vision and critique that has been animating his politics for the past forty years, but it resonates today in a way that it never could in previous times. He displayed a bit of political sanctimony of the kind seen in previous sanctimonious presidents—John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk and Woodrow Wilson. But it didn’t come across as particularly thick. And his capacity for concentrating on fundamental issues while avoiding petty distractions clearly will play well. His declaration that voters are “sick and tired” of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal will go down as one of the most brilliant debating ploys of recent memory, all the more potent for its manifest sincerity.
O’Malley: Very much in the Bernie Sanders mold, O’Malley represents his party’s rebellion against the Democratic Leadership Council style of centrist politics. He was well spoken and well turned out, but it isn’t clear why voters would turn to him over Sanders, who is the real thing and got there first. But, given O’Malley’s debating skills and attractiveness, his presidential race is likely to propel him forward to somewhere; it just isn’t clear exactly where.
Chafee: It isn’t clear what Chafee is attempting to accomplish with this presidential run. Though charming and expressive, he lacked political energy in the debate and didn’t seem to separate himself from his opponents in any meaningful way. Besides, he has been a Democrat for only the past two years, probably an inadequate period of party identity for anyone wanting the Democratic nomination for the country’s highest office. This isn’t likely to be a long-term candidacy.
Webb: He seemed to debate at the level of mundanity, answering most questions with detailed and often boring descriptions of how he handled particular issues during his senatorial term. He lacked passion and didn’t speak with any central narrative of where the country is today, what its problems are, and what needs to be done to address them. As noted, he came closest to hewing to the old centrist sensibilities of a Bill Clinton or Bill Bradley, particularly when he responded to Sanders’s call for a “political revolution” by saying, “I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.” But it isn’t clear that the party wants to go back to Bill Clinton in these times, and even if it does Webb didn’t comport himself in ways likely to stir the political juices of like minded Democrats.