The first Democrat to speak at last night’s debate was not a candidate for president — in fact, it wasn’t even someone present in the Wynn Las Vegas auditorium where the hopefuls gathered. It was President Barack Obama, who rallied the assembled in a recorded video touting his administration’s accomplishments on issues such as financial reform, health care and clean energy.
The underlying message was clear: After the 2016 election, a successful Democrat will deliver a third term of the Obama administration. Among the leading candidates, however, there was evidence that the future could be different in important ways — for good and ill. The first Democratic debate offered a preview of the party’s promises and pitfalls in the post-Obama era.
Even in the debate’s first few minutes, the combined influence of the first black president and the Black Lives Matter movement against racist police violence was clear. During his first campaign, Obama tiptoed around the issue of his race and as president occasionally stumbled into controversies (such as the 2009 arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home) gleefully exploited by conservatives. This year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders used his opening comments to decry mass incarceration. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, seen before Sanders’ rise as Hillary Clinton’s most likely progressive challenger, found himself stymied on the issue of arrest numbers during his time as mayor of Baltimore. And former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who has criticized certain affirmative action programs, was bluntly challenged by CNN’s debate host Anderson Cooper, who asked, “Given that nearly half the Democratic Party is nonwhite, aren’t you out of step with where the Democratic Party is now?” The candidates either spoke frankly about the problems facing African-Americans or were challenged when their answers and record appeared to fall short.
It was clear that the candidates have inherited a domestic policy consensus from Obama that has moved leftward in the last few years — on drug policy, incarceration, inequality and other issues important to liberal voters. And the debaters jockeyed for positions and articulated a reasonable range of perspectives to choose from. While Democrats are starting to find their voice on these problems in domestic policy, the debate highlighted serious weaknesses in the candidates’ approaches to foreign policy. Democrats do not need a unified position on every foreign policy challenge facing the country, but they do need a serious debate about them. Such discussion was woefully absent from last night’s forum.
Take the lack of any serious conversation about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Just over a week ago, the United States reached a final agreement on the deal, which will bring new rules and standards to 12 countries that together represent 40 percent of the world’s economy. Hillary Clinton, who in 2012, when she was the secretary of state, claimed that the deal “sets the gold standard” for such agreements, recently reversed her position — bringing her views into line with Sanders, who decried at one point “our disastrous trade policies.” None of the leading candidates mentioned the deal’s environmental protections or its devotion of resources to the fight against poaching and wildlife trafficking. There was no talk of its protections for workers, its rules against child labor and forced labor or its guarantee of collective bargaining rights. These are pro-environmental, pro-worker measures that progressives should champion. On Tuesday no candidate was willing to so much as raise those issues.
Even worse, none of the candidates indicated that they had any well-developed plans for confronting the chaos engulfing the Middle East — especially the civil war in Syria and resulting refugee crisis. Obama has been criticized for his failure to bring peace and stability to Syria, and to be sure, his administration has hardly distinguished itself on the issue. In August 2012 he said that chemical weapons represented a “red line” that Bashar al-Assad should not cross. One year later, after the chemical attack in Ghouta, the administration stumbled into a weapons agreement designed to dismantle the Assad regime’s chemical weapon supply. The agreement not only did nothing to address the regime’s use of conventional weapons, but it hasn’t even stopped the use of chlorine, which the government continues to use in grisly attacks on civilians. Moreover, its attempt to arm Syrian rebels has been a humiliating failure. Despite all this, Obama’s policy has at least avoided two extremes: He has neither drawn the U.S. into another war nor concluded that past mistakes absolve it from any responsibility for the fate of a desperate, besieged people. He could and still should do more, especially to bring the conflict to an end and take in more Syrian refugees.
Yet even by these low standards, his would-be successors compared poorly. As secretary of state, Clinton backed airstrikes and plans to arm “moderate” rebels — a policy whose track record is, to put it lightly, spotty. Sanders, for his part, dispensed quickly with a question about Syria, calling it a “quagmire in a quagmire” before pivoting to the Iraq War. Given a second chance to address the issue, Sanders again chose to discuss Iraq, connecting the run-up to that war with Clinton’s support for a no-fly zone. “I heard the same evidence from President [George W.] Bush and Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld about why we should overthrow Saddam Hussein,” he warned. Although he acknowledged that on Syria, Obama is threading a “tough needle,” Sanders seemed disinclined to discuss a potential U.S. role, whether in ending the war or resolving the attendant crises.
This is a poor showing from the two candidates seeking to inherit a full-scale humanitarian disaster from the current occupant of the Oval Office. If the hawkish instincts of Clinton are a poor fit for the situation, so is Sanders’ disinclination to consider the possibility that not every crisis in the Middle East is Iraq circa 2003.
When the debate ended, no better ideas for addressing this thorny problem had emerged from the hopefuls assembled onstage — and none of them seemed up to the task of even having a serious argument about what the next Democratic president should do. That president, whoever he or she is, will confront a host of international problems where the ideological signals are decidedly unclear. What is the progressive stance on the new trade deal or the crisis in Syria? Would it be better to continue the Obama trajectory on these issues or to take a new path? After last night, it seemed clear that none of these candidates really know. Five more debates remain to see if they can work it out.