The First Democratic Party Debate, 2015-2016

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, and Martin O’Malley squared off in a debate. Absent were Vice President Joe Biden and Professor Laurence Lessig. The former still hasn’t declared a run, and he may just not run. The latter, a proponent of the “fix it first, then we can govern” strategy, was barred for not polling well enough (which is hard to change if the pollsters leave you off the polling lists).

The debate was at least as much of an echo chamber as the Republican debates, except with different ideas echoing. We have to deal with income inequality. Black lives matter. Global warming sucks. Clinton’s emails suck.

Clinton failed to fail, to the chagrin of everybody who bought into the idea that she was some sort of cardboard cutout, a collective hallucination of the 1990s. Sanders had his “sick of your damn emails” moment, which caused Clinton to jubilate.

But what did we learn? Sanders is left of Clinton, but between their positions and the political landscape they would hold them against, does it matter? If Lessig had been there, I’m sure in the minute time allotted him, he would have pointed out that we have to fix the broken system, too. That, barring a more responsive, less-competitive legislative body, doing much will be very difficult.

Hell, with the Freedom Caucus, America could know the winning lottery numbers and still fail to buy the ticket, because those idiots would be trying to attach a defund-Planned-Parenthood rider to the appropriation bill to purchase the $5 ticket.

So, just like with the Republican debates, we go into these things with a certain amount of our imagination hats on our heads. “It’s pretend time, boys and girls,” the moderators say. “Let’s imagine a world where not only the speaker is the president, but they can do whatever they want.” That sort of hypothetical monarchy game is the form of our debates.

Otherwise, there were the sort of meaningless questions such as whether Edward Snowden should have to go to jail. Whatever your opinions of the man and his actions, it’s moot unless he returns to the USA or a country with extradition. The odds are basically 50-50 on if Snowden ever steps on US soil again, and if he does it will probably be after 2030 or so. Not really a pressing issue.

For the record, Clinton’s couching of Snowden is one of her many safe plays in the debate. Establishment lines, to be expected. She did the same on cannabis, for example. Anybody studying the situation should have grave doubts that Clinton wouldn’t sign a broadly-supported bill to legalize cannabis in a heartbeat. And, similarly, she would either exonerate or condemn Snowden if that were the political choice.

That sounds kind of scary, electing people who will basically color within the lines, whatever the lines may be. Those lines are bent by political gravities that seem hard to change, and the system can commit massive cruelties because of them. The good news is that the lines seem to slowly shift for the better, as with gay marriage. The bad news is that, for millions dealing with convictions for cannabis or for someone like Snowden, the lines don’t move fast enough.

Gun control (or “gun safety” as several candidates called it) came up in a big way. Again, without either side giving ground it is hard to see how things change a lot on the issue. That said, it does set the Democrats at odds with the Republicans. A willingness to do something about a problem, even not knowing the right way to fix it, is still a virtue.

And, right with guns came the talk of war. Would you go to war? Should we have gone to war? What about Syria? What about Iran? The answers weren’t as hawkish as the Republicans’, but weren’t dovish either.

On Wall Street, on the other hand, there were calls by some to replace the firewall between investment and consumer banking. Clinton did not endorse the idea, but otherwise the consensus seemed to be it wouldn’t hurt. Again, not clear that it matters in the real world, where increasing regulations of finance isn’t exactly something easy to get passed.

Who won? Both Clinton and Sanders had strong showings, which basically means Clinton won, at least in the immediate aftermath. She’s the poll leader, which means that absent either a poor performance from her or a stand-out performance from a competitor, she either gains or stays the same. Sanders has a broad following online, which could turn a short-term Clinton win into a long-term Sanders win. Whether that materializes remains to be seen.