We’ve had a few days from last week’s Democratic debate to digest the results and the reactions and to proceed from initial impressions to some firmer conclusions. I don’t just mean evaluations of the individual candidates but conclusions about the direction of the Democratic Party as a whole. What do the candidates and their messages tell us about what Democratic Party audiences want to hear?
There are six big things we’ve learned.
1. The era of big government is back.
Twenty years ago, Bill Clinton acquiesced to the Republican takeover of Congress by proclaiming that “the era of big government is over.” He didn’t really mean it, but he at least felt the need to say it.
Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary by promising not to make such accommodations. He wanted to bring back the era of big government. The question is whether Democrats were going to stick with that or decide Obama had been too optimistic.
All the Democratic candidates did last week was talk about the new programs they would create—free college was the big one, despite the problems with the idea. Nobody balked, nobody said it wasn’t realistic, nobody talked about ratcheting back government or expecting less. Asked about it directly, Hillary Clinton contemptuously dismissed warnings about big government: “we should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that.’… I know we can afford it, because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it.”
The only person who sprinkled any cold water on this was Jim Webb, who told Bernie Sanders, “I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.” He seemed to be alone in that estimate.
2. Dr. Utopia is in.
Webb also told Sanders, “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come.” He seemed to be alone in that estimate as well.
During the primaries in 2008, I remember a couple of supporters of Hillary Clinton deriding Barack Obama as “Dr. Utopia” for making all sorts of astonishing promises about “fundamental transformation,” on which he couldn’t possibly deliver. Yet it seems he’s delivered just enough to whet Democrats’ appetite for utopianism.
To be sure, the early stages of the primaries are the time when candidates have a high incentive to rally the base by promising more than the other guys. (I was at Ted Cruz’s announcement this spring, and he laid out a buffet of red meat for conservatives.) But the Democrats seem particularly unrestrained. Bernie Sanders is promising a “revolution,” Martin O’Malley is promising a total conversion to “green energy,” Lincoln Chafee is promising world peace, and Hillary Clinton is waving her hand and assuring us that the rich will pay for everything. There is no sense that there are limits—either practical or political—on any promises.
There are excellent reasons why Democrats should not be so eager for a replay of Obama-style utopianism. Not least is the political cost they paid for it by losing the House, the Senate, and many state legislatures. But it doesn’t seem that Democratic primary voters are willing to accept this.
3. They have no plan for the economy.
At the debate, and in the rest of the campaign so far, we’ve heard plenty of plans for how Democrats are going to spend all of the money once they tax it from “the rich”—which actually means the middle class—but we haven’t heard any plans for how the American people are going to make that money in the first place.
The economy has been dragging along for years with low growth and stagnant wages. None of the Democratic candidates are describing how they’re going to revive it.
You will hear a lot of complaints from the candidates about the suffering of the middle class—the irony being that these Democrats are making a pretty compelling case for the failure of their own incumbent president. But all of the talk is about how they’re going to help people by redistributing wealth or providing free stuff. None of it is about how we’re going to return to strong economic growth so that people can have jobs and make money.
Instead, they place a much more urgent priority on stopping global warming—a position not about how to stimulate new production, but about how to force current production to convert to far more expensive and unreliable forms of energy.
4. They have no concept of national security.
Democrats place such a high priority on global warming that they named it as America’s top national security threat. No, really. Echoing President Obama—who thinks he’s outmaneuvering Vladimir Putin as a global leader because he has pushed for agreements on climate change—both O’Malley and Sanders answered “climate change” when asked “who or what is the greatest national security threat to the United States?”
And this wasn’t viewed as disqualifying. In fact, it was touted as a compelling reason to vote for Sanders.
It’s not just that they have a wrong concept about national security (like Lindoln Chafee, who cited “instability in the Middle East,” which is uselessly vague). It’s that this is not even a concept about national security.
National security means the protection of the United States from threat of coercion or attack by hostile powers and international terrorists. That’s what defines the category. If a candidate cites “climate change” as a national security issue, then he’s just using “national security” to mean “something people think is really important” and then throwing into that category anything that’s important to his agenda. I’m sure we could get some of these same candidates to say that “income inequality” is a “national security” issue.
But if they’re thinking about global warming or inequality as a top national security issue, then they’re not thinking about actual national security issues—and they don’t even know that they’re not thinking about them. Yet these are the candidates vying for the job of commander-in-chief.
On the other hand, I can see why they don’t want to think about national security, because they would have to identify the Islamic State as a top national security threat, and then they would have to lay out a plan for what they’re going to do about it. But if you’re committed to not doing anything about that national security threat (and another thing we learned last week is that none of the candidates seems to think our current do-nothing foreign policy is in any kind of crisis) you still have to come up with some agenda item under the heading “national security.” So you cast about for something else in your agenda that you can file under that category, however implausibly.
None of the candidates can put forward a credible strategy for dealing with the Islamic State because most of last week’s foreign policy discussion was centered around anti-interventionism. At the debate, it became clear that opposition to the Iraq War still dominates and distorts their whole outlook. After 40 years of defining themselves by opposition to the Vietnam War and trying to show how much they are not Lyndon B. Johnson, they’re all trying to prove how much they are not George W. Bush.
5. Democrats are defined by who they hate.
The final question of last week’s debate was, “Which enemy are you most proud of?” It was an interesting question, but it was also a big old trap, and most of the Democrats fell right into it.
The trap was that it invited the candidates to describe their fellow citizens as the enemy and to define themselves in terms of their enmity toward other Americans. It invited them to define themselves, not by the positive ideals they stand for, but by the benighted forces of regression whom they delight in thwarting.
This is all just too tempting for the Left, which has a tendency to define itself as “smart” and “progressive” by caricaturing everyone else as stupid, greedy, mean-spirited and, of course, bigoted. They are extremely vulnerable to the old temptation of trying to become a saint through the sins of others. That question just sucked them in. They defined themselves as enemies of Big Coal, the NRA, health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, Wall Street, billionaires, and Republicans.
The only one who didn’t answer that way was Jim Webb. In a slightly awkward moment, he named the North Vietnamese soldier he killed in an action that earned him the Navy Cross in 1969. He was the only Democrat whose first reaction was to name an enemy who was not American.
6. The conservative Democrat is a dinosaur.
You’ll notice that Webb is the odd man out in these observations. When “Saturday Night Live” offered its take on last week’s debate, the only caricature that was really off base was of Webb.
They showed him dodging tough questions, something the real Webb never did. Instead, he answered them but as if he were at a different debate. (Larry David’s Sanders, by contrast, was exactly like the guy sitting next to me in the Jiffy Lube waiting room last week who kept shouting at Fox News Channel. So it was dead on.)
Of course, having voted for ObamaCare and being somewhere to the left of John Kasich, Webb would never make it in the Republican primary. But he is definitely in the mold of the old conservative Democrats, especially the “Reagan Democrats” who supported the Gipper back in the 1980s.
He’s also a flat line in the polls and immediately became an object of scorn on the Left for his answer about that North Vietnamese soldier. Among Democrats, it long ago stopped being acceptable to boast about killing Communists.
So Webb provides us with the final lesson. Among Democrats who believe unabashedly in a big government utopia, who no longer make much pretense of caring about economic growth or national security, and who define themselves by their opposition to fellow Americans—in that field, an old-fashioned conservative Democrat just doesn’t fit in.