Despite Solid Reviews, Democratic Debate Exposes Weak Points

With 15.3 million viewers, Tuesday’s CNN/Facebook Democratic debate had the highest rating of any Democratic primary debate in US history. That means that about one in twenty Americans watched the five candidates vie for the opportunity to lead the party’s ticket in 2016 – about as many viewers as a typical primetime football game.

I’ll let readers decide whether or not that’s an encouraging sign for the health of our electoral process.

Those people who did tune-in saw a performance that didn’t live up to the pyrotechnics of a debate stage with Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have its memorable moments. Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton – the only candidates with a real shot at winning the nomination – were flanked by Lincoln Chafee, of Rhode Island, and a former senator from Virginia, Jim Webb.

At one point, Mr. Webb seemed to forget the name of one of his children. Surprisingly, it went downhill from there. Webb went on to explain that he opposes affirmative action, except for when it exclusively applies to African-Americans – a position that seemed carefully designed to upset as many people as possible. He spent much of his remaining time arguing with moderator Anderson Cooper about how much time he was being allowed. Cooper had to remind him multiple times that he had agreed to the debate rules.

Lincoln Chafee somehow had an even worse night. Cooper twice asked him to explain difficult votes he took while in the Senate, once in support of the Iraq war and once when he voted to repeal Glass-Steagall. Chafee explained those votes by claiming that he hadn’t really known what he was doing at the time and that, besides, the votes had been carried by wide margins, making his vote insignificant to the outcome. Not exactly the stuff of leadership.

The remaining candidates probably did as well as they were hoping to do. Hillary Clinton avoided damage and racked up applause lines in front of a friendly audience. Bernie Sanders was generally able to present a coherent picture of the policies he supports, and Martin O’Malley scored a win by sharing the stage with them and coming across as presidential and reasonably charismatic.

Even so, there were a few things worth pointing out that should worry Democrats.

“Climate change is an opportunity.”

Both Clinton and O’Malley emphasized the point that climate change is an ‘opportunity’. An opportunity for what? Anthropogenic climate change might spur innovation that might then lead to tremendous positive externalities, and that would be great. It’s also true that Americans are less likely to accept the bitter medicine of carbon control if it doesn’t come with a barrel of sugar. And climate change is still likely to prove calamitous for the world’s most vulnerable people. Calling climate change an ‘opportunity’ is precisely the kind of minimizing political pablum that has gotten America into so much trouble already.

“Bernie, I don’t think the revolution is going to come.”

Bernie Sanders wants to model America on Scandinavia. That’s not a political attack; it’s a fair description of Mr. Sanders’ proposals. When asked to explain why his ideas do not represent unrealistic radicalism, Mr. Sanders points to Sweden, Denmark, and Norway. This ignores two important facts. The first is that those same countries have spent the past two decades trying to moderate their welfare states after deciding that they were unsustainable. That should give Mr. Sanders’ supporters some pause. It doesn’t.

(c) Gage Skidmore

(c) Gage Skidmore

The second is that Scandinavia has a combined population the size of Texas – not small, but nowhere near as big as the United States. Scandinavia also doesn’t have the same history of class and racial division that the US has. Our economies look different, as do our global postures, and our political institutions are structured differently.

In other words, Scandinavia and the US are vastly different places, and we should expect those differences to matter. Conceptually, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be at least as skeptical about the idea that we could import Scandinavian solutions for American challenges as we are about the idea that we can export American solutions for Middle Eastern problems.

To invoke an American immigrant from Europe, the particulars of time and place matter. None of that is an argument against moving to the left, as Sanders’ supporters want. But it is an argument in favor of gradualism and intellectual humility. In contrast, Sanders is selling a progressive revolution.

“Damn Emails.”

Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton was asked about the scandals surrounding her mishandling of classified information and government emails. Her response at one point was revealing: “I’m being as transparent as I know to be.” What should worry Democrats isn’t the possibility that Ms. Clinton is lying when she says that, but the possibility that she’s telling the truth.

At this point, anyone who thinks that a Clinton presidency won’t bring an intensification of the scandal politics that have followed her and President Obama around is deluding themselves. When asked which enemy she is most proud of, Clinton answered, “probably the Republicans.” Democratic primary voters might have liked that answer, but they should be keenly aware that the feelings between Clinton and the Republicans are mutual.

In Ms. Clinton, Democrats are looking for someone who’s a political fighter, but they have yet to ask her how she expects to win those fights. A lot is being pinned (once again) on the power of personality.

Voters should also be aware that Hillary is a thoroughly political animal. After having championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership as Secretary of State, going as far as calling it the “gold standard”, Ms. Clinton came out against TPP in advance of the Democratic debate. The timing of her announcement was transparently selected to insulate her from attacks, but it left her having to explain her flip-flop. Hillary explained that she had only “hoped” that it would be the gold standard, and that sadly it wasn’t.

That was a lie and Americans should take note.

O say, can’t you see?

The Democratic debate began with a standard public ritual: as the candidates faced the flag and put their hands over their hearts, Sheryl Crow sang the national anthem. Perhaps the debate producers meant it as a piece of subtle commentary on our national politics that there was no actual flag in the room, instead the candidates turned their attention to a screen, where a simulated sun shone through digital cloth, which in turned rippled in the imaginary wind.

That was the first minute of the debate, but the next couple of hours also had plenty of make-believe.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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