Watching the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday night, it was hard not to be flipping channels to check the scores. Halfway through, I was checking to see if there was a “Law & Order” rerun. Unlike the Republican debates, from which a team of horses could not drag me, the Democratic debates this year are sleepy affairs. In a GOP debate, you are sitting at the edge of your seat to hear the next outrageous thing that will be said: Kill the families of terrorists? Sure. Ban all Muslims from entering the US? Sure. A third war in the Mideast in as many decades? Sure. That is a GOP debate. The Dems? Not so much.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has maintained her comfortable lead in the polls and she maintained an equally comfortable command of the stage, standing at the center podium, batting back the occasional barbs that came her way with effectiveness, even at times with wit. When asked about a story that said Wall Street really loves her, and whether they are right to love her, Clinton replied, “Everybody should!” It was deft, not only deflecting attention away from her unfortunately too cozy relationship with Wall Street – think Robert Rubin – but also cheekily confronting her reputation for being unlikable, and doing it with a bit of self-deprecation. Here was a Clinton that everybody could actually like.
The exchange also prompted Sen. Bernie Sanders' best moment. When asked if corporate America will like his presidency he said, “No, I think they won’t.” This is the essence of Sanders’ campaign, a desire to take on corporate America and especially Wall Street, an understandable desire, I would even argue a morally worthy desire, but it is hard to see how he could be the one to pull it off. Americans are saturated with little gospels of success (and, regrettably, some who preach the Gospel of Success, an abomination of the first order), and most of the group of people from whom economic advisors of both parties will be drawn accept the basic premises of neoliberal economics. Americans are not prepared to elect a socialist, even if that is precisely what we need. (And, the truth be told, we need something different from a socialist. More on that in a moment.)
Former Gov. Martin O’Malley had his best night of the campaign. He was feisty without being combative. (Combative would have entailed saying, “Secretary Clinton, don’t you think it a bit irresponsible to risk the fortunes of the entire party, seeking to be our nominee, when you have an FBI investigation hanging of your head? Must it hang over the heads of everyone else running as a Democrat?”) He did the best job linking human stories with policy prescriptions, and looked far more relaxed than in previous debates. If the O’Malley who showed up last night had been present at the first debate, the trajectory of the whole campaign might have been different. (In fairness to him, that first debate was marred by the inexplicable presence of Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, and O’Malley got lumped with them in the public’s eye, rather than with the main contenders.) And, O’Malley brings the kind of executive experience that would normally be determinative in a presidential contest: Whereas senators can say that they voted for something, or even wrote a piece of legislation, governors can say, “I did it,” and on some on the most popular issues with the left, from same sex marriage to gun control to raising taxes on the wealthy, O’Malley actually did accomplish those things as governor. His inability to gain more traction this year was one of the flukes of the race: Bernie Sanders got into the “Left of Clinton” lane faster and with surprising effect, and O’Malley has been unable to find a different lane.
One thing did surprise me about the debate. In answering question about the threat posed by Islamicist extremists, especially the home grown variety like the man who carried out the killings in San Bernardino, all of the candidates talked about the need for more human intelligence, about the need to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and about how the Muslim community itself will be our greatest ally, our first line of defense. But, there is not a Muslim community in the country that could have stopped Dylann Roof, who shot up Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, or Adam Lanza, who killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or James Holmes, who murdered twelve people watching a movie in Aurora, Colorado. Islamicist violence is admittedly scary, and our government needs to take steps to meet that threat, but it is only one variety of mass murder in American society today. I was surprised that none of the candidates said something to that effect, which leads me to the conclusion that their pollsters told them it doesn’t play well with focus groups. Alas, sometimes the truth doesn’t play well with focus groups, but it must still be said.
What is most missing from the Democrats is a moral voice. Clinton has a policy for every problem. Sanders has an agenda, and it is an agenda deeply rooted in themes of economic justice, but he lacks the moral vocabulary that might make his vision more broadly acceptable, or even understandable, to many Americans. O’Malley, schooled by the Jesuits, comes closest to articulating a moral vision, but it is a confused vision, sharing the libertarianism of the left on certain issues and the communitarianism of the left on others.
Still, while it appears O’Malley’s campaign is going nowhere, and Sanders has stalled, and it will be humanly difficult to vote for Clinton, none of the three Democratic candidates is what you would call scary. It is easy to imagine many ways that a Clinton presidency would be a failure, but we would not have trouble sleeping at night. None of the candidates has an adequate answer to the threat posed by ISIS but, as President Obama correctly said, ISIS is like a cancer without a cure. Whoever is the next president faces a set of bad choices in confronting it. Even the Republicans, for all their bluster, do not have meaningfully different proposals from what Obama is doing now. But, that bluster is not insignificant and I fear that many of us would have trouble sleeping at night if Trump or Cruz or Rubio were to win the presidency. The Democrats may be boring, but compared to the alternative, boring may be just fine.