It is both fashionable and morally defensible to pre-emptively mock the two-day, 20-candidate, official opening of the Democratic presidential primary debate season, which kicks off tonight at 9 p.m. EDT in Miami. It's a "circus," it's a potential "horror show," it's "the largest gathering of liberals since Woodstock," and those are just some of the characterizations by comparatively straightlaced newspapers.
But opening night debates can also have their charms. The first GOP skirmish of the 2012 cycle, for example, featured the glorious sight of two libertarians—Ron Paul and Gary Johnson—opposing torture, advocating immediate troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, calling for radical cuts in spending, and demanding that the federal government end its ruinous war on drugs. "If we legalize heroin tomorrow," Paul said, in one of my all-time favorite Republican presidential debate moments, "is everyone going to use heroin? How many people here would use heroin if it were legal?"
First debates, particularly when (unlike that surreal 2011 GOP gathering) they include all the major candidates, can actually tell us a great deal about where a political party is headed. Front-runners reveal, through where they backpedal and where they pounce, just which undercurrents of grassroots party sentiment they're afraid of. Runner-ups test out their haymakers and foreshadow the terrains where the primary contest will and won't be fought on. Fringe candidates take their best shots, many of them never to be heard from again, taking both their important and esoteric issues away with them.
So it was on October 13 (!), 2015, in the Democratic season opener, where consensus favorite Hillary Clinton (then polling around 43 percent nationwide), took on democratic socialist insurgent Bernie Sanders (25 percent), and the one-percenter trio of Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee. It was the one-and-done debate for the latter two political iconoclasts, both of whose candidacies centered around forceful critiques of America's (and Clinton's) disastrous post-9/11 war-making in the Middle East.
(Webb was also the only candidate to answer the question "Do Black lives matter?" by saying "Every life in this country matters," for which he was roundly excoriated, despite the fact that, as Ed Krayewski pointed out back then, "In an alternate universe, where enough of the Democratic base is demanding attention be paid to criminal justice reform, perhaps former Virginia senator Jim Webb is the insurgent candidate, or even the frontrunner." This, too, was a harbinger of Democratic tendencies to come—rhetoric on race and criminal justice routinely trumps record.)
But the biggest tell and foreshadowing of things to come from that first 2015 debate was how economic progressivism would rout foreign policy as the white-hot center of lefty concerns. Clinton backpedaled furiously on her prior support for free trade agreements, on her coziness with Wall Street, on her reluctance to go Full Bernie on entitlements. As I wrote at the time,
On guns, on responding rhetorically to the phrase "black lives matter," and especially on economic policy, Clinton is responding to the contemporary passions of the Democratic grassroots by tacking leftward. So it's illustrative for both the candidate and the party to observe which issues the Democratic frontrunner does not feel evident pressure to 'absorb new information' about.
Despite being surrounded on the debate stage by critics of U.S. military overreach, Clinton gave not one inch, having the gall to declare her unprovoked, unauthorized regime-change war in Libya as "smart power at its best." We need to enforce a no-fly zone over Syria "to get Russia to the table." National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden needs to face the music. And so on.
We know what happened next: Over the course of the two-candidate race, Sanders (and his enthusiastic supporters) pushed Clinton and the party very noticeably to the left on economics, while leaving her essentially unmoved on foreign policy and criminal justice. (Bernie also, in that first debate's most famous line, essentially forfeited as an issue Clinton's serially dishonest accounts of handling her State Department emails, thereby leaving that weakness unexploited until Donald Trump came along.)
So what important early indicators should we be looking out for in this Democratic debate season opener? Here are three:
1) Will any non-fringe candidate bring up math?
Democrats love talking about being the "party of science" when it comes to climate change. (On genetically modified foods, not so much.) But what about arithmetic?
In living memory, there was a prominent Democrat (a Clinton, no less!) who famously invoked the A-word when talking about Republican deficit-busting policies. Hillary's main critique of Bernie's various Medicare-for-all plans during the 2016 primaries was that "the numbers just don't add up." But are candidates even pretending to count anymore?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is "yes," though that's mostly on the long-tail end of the polling spectrum. "The explosion of our national debt is a threat to our economic and national security," former Maryland congressman John Delaney (June national polling average: 0.4 percent) warned in February. When asked last month why she wasn't endorsing several of the more fanciful spending proposals in the 2020 field, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.) told CNBC: "I don't want to saddle this generation and the ones after it with even more debt." (Klobuchar's June polling average is 1.1 percent.)
And former congressman Beto O'Rourke (polling average: 3.4 percent), who was a member of the comparatively fiscal hawkish New Democrat bloc in Congress, routinely complains in his stump rap that "we are $22 trillion in debt, and deficit spending to the tune of one trillion dollars annually added to that." Back in 2012, he even said, "We're running $1 trillion annual deficits and we cannot continue to spend ourselves into ruin. We need to elect people who are gonna go up there and make some tough choices."
O'Rourke, Klobuchar, and Delaney share a stage tonight with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (12.2 percent), one day after the Congressional Budget Office projected that the national debt-to-GDP ratio will soon hit "unprecedented levels" despite the previous near-decade of economic growth. So, who will be the one to point out that Warren's fusillade of spending proposals can't possibly begin to add up?
"Delaney will offer a clear distinction between candidates offering false promises and our campaign which is built on actual results," campaign manager John Davis told Bloomberg. "Warren and [Cory] Booker have both signed on to Senator Sanders' Medicare For All bill which would make private insurance illegal. We plan to have a discussion about that."
Whether Klobuchar or O'Rourke feel brave enough to stand up for budget math will be a key early indicator of whether bothering to pay for stuff is still a live rhetorical issue in the Democratic Party.
2) Will Joe Biden cave on trade?
The early-polling frontrunner (31.9 percent average in June) sticks out from the field like a sore old thumb in all kinds of ways, most prominently on trade and marijuana. That is, until last month.
Biden, who I have analogized to a rusty weather vane (he'll creak in the direction of the prevailing political winds, eventually), announced five weeks ago—after a long and unfortunately productive life as a drug warrior—that he now favors decriminalizing marijuana on the federal level. Welcome to the party, Grandpa Joe!
But will the would-be restorative establishmentarian feel the pressure to make a similar volte-face on free trade? So far, Biden has staked out ground to the contrary, campaigning directly against President Donald Trump's tariff-happy approach to economic policy. This comes at a time when Democratic voters, in reaction to Trump, are veering more sharply pro-trade than ever.
Delaney and O'Rourke have also been campaigning against Trump's tariffs, as has South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (7.4 percent). Will the latter turn heel on Bernie Sanders Thursday, drawing a sharper distinction between the centrist and progressive lanes?
The Atlantic this week asked all 23 Democratic presidential candidates where they stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Obama administration agreement that Biden helped negotiate and Trump promptly bolted from. The results were about as slippery as a tub full of eels. (Biden, for one, was silent.) Whether he or any other Democrats will feel emboldened to argue positively for the virtues of international exchange may tell us whether the free trade wing of the party is back from the dead.
3) Will any candidate back free speech?
Want to die tonight or tomorrow? Play this drinking game: Knock back a shot each time you hear a candidate negatively reference Citizens United.
It has long since become Democratic cant to bewail and advocate the overturning of the 2010 Supreme Court case that legalized the airing of political documentaries before an election. Though usually politicians just wave away any free-speech considerations and move straight to the allegedly oligarchical corruption of money in politics.
Political attacks on free speech seem to intensify each week. More recently, following the lead of a president who is awful on the issue, some conservatives are leaping at the opportunity to put the federal government in charge of figuring out what is and isn't a neutral speech platform.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D–Ore.) right now is a lonely voice in his party, objecting, on First Amendment grounds, both to rewriting the Communications Decency Act and to passing the Sex Trafficking Act of 2018. So will any of the 20 candidates join Wyden in standing athwart the social media panic, yelling "Hey, uh, slow down a bit"?
With the 20 candidates likely in vigorous agreement over the immigration crisis, climate change, and loathing Donald Trump, the chances of this two-night extravaganza being a snoozefest is alarmingly high. But that doesn't mean it won't tell us something. Two-party politics tends to work like a pendulum, with the opposition re-forming in reaction to (and sometimes in imitation of) the sitting president. Trump has been an unusually disruptive force in both the GOP and the country writ large, leaving the possibilities for reactionary reinvention wide open.
Your move, Democrats.