New direction?

Photographer: Mark Wilson

Democrats Bring Clear Risks, Cloudy Vision, to Debate

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The Democratic debate on Tuesday night in Las Vegas is both an individual and team sport. It offers opportunity (and potential hazard) for individual candidates. But it will also be a coming out for the Democratic Party, which for more than six years has been housed in the lanky frame of President Barack Obama.

It could make for an awkward picture. It's not surprising that Hillary Clinton has thus far failed to consolidate the party's support: The appetite for coronations appears weak in both parties. But who expected Bernie Sanders to loom so large?

His success throws a monkey wrench into the candidates' debate strategies. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley had hoped to be in Sanders' shoes, presenting a younger, slightly more liberal alternative to Clinton. Instead, the Vermont senator has colonized the Ben & Jerry's left, his unkempt wisps of white hair telegraphing his disdain for conventional politics as surely as Donald Trump's architectural crown conveys his mastery of circus arts.

Does O'Malley, far behind in name recognition, popular support and money, now present himself as a more polished, electable alternative to Sanders? Or does he try to carve out a small duchy of his own from Clinton's shaky support? Should he attack? Who?

"I think it's very tough to go after somebody from a position of 1 or 2 percent in the polls," said former Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, who has decades of experience preparing presidential candidates for debates. "If you are attacking from a position of weakness, you may hurt the person you're attacking, but you're also likely to benefit someone else."

Ideally, in a multi-candidate debate, candidates look for an issue on which they can take a popular stand against the crowd on stage. But Clinton has spent the past several months blurring distinctions with Sanders on trade, financial regulation and more. She has an incentive to keep up the camouflage -- except, of course, when she expresses disappointment in Sanders for insufficient devotion to gun regulation. 

On health care, where Sanders supports "single-payer" nationalized health care, Clinton can make a call to a higher authority, supporting the gains of Obama's plan, and promising to build on them. (Obama's favorability rating among Democrats is consistently in the low 80s.)

The odd men out present a challenge all their own. Former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Senator James Webb are both running "quixotic" campaigns, Shrum said. There's no telling what either might do on the debate stage.

At CNN, former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote, "Clinton's mission on Tuesday is to rise above the tactical and present a coherent, value-laden vision that will make her flood of policy papers seem like something more than positions of convenience."  

Of course, substance is influenced by strategic and tactical goals, along with the general political environment. Sanders certainly brings a value-laden vision. He is a conviction politician, but his convictions were forged in a liberal-left politics that predates the Ronald Reagan administration. Sanders' candidacy is a rejection not only of the market-friendly presidency of Bill Clinton, but of the market-rescuing Obama administration. The rise of inequality, and growing concern about it among Democrats, has enabled old passions to become newly relevant.

Unlike Sanders, Clinton is wedded to pragmatism. Few of her many policy positions make for compelling political slogans. Partisan polarization, however, is her friend. That's why she sent her memoir to all the Republican candidates: It was an enticement to attack her. The invitation followed Representative Kevin McCarthy's bumbling admission that the House's Benghazi investigations are pure politics, targeted directly at Clinton's candidacy. If she can use the debate to help turn Democratic voters from squeamish about another Clinton candidacy to outraged at Republican perfidy, she wins.

Despite a fair amount of unity among Democrats, much about the party's direction is still unknown. Without Obama, it's a hulking ship preparing to leave port. The first debate should offer some clues about where it might be headed. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Francis Wilkinson at

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