The Democratic sideshow finally begins

From left, Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley and Lincoln Chafee. Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

From left, Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee. Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

For quite some time now, liberal Democrats have been ridiculing the Republican field for president, its candidates, its beliefs, and its antics.

It has been easy for Democrats to lob those rhetorical grenades over the fence, because up until Tuesday night, the Democrats had yet to engage with one another, and the full field of candidates was essentially unknown to the public.

Now that we have had an opportunity to see Hillary Clinton in action, as well as Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee (Seriously? He’s running?) all standing next to each other on a stage talking about issues, the hilarity of leftist criticism becomes apparent.

Progressives love to lecture conservatives about how radicalized their ideological base has become, as though the same thing is not happening to them as well. But it is, and the debate certainly highlighted that fact.

Clinton may be the frontrunner for the nomination, but it has been clear for a while now that Democrats aren’t exactly in love with her. Much like Republicans, the left wants a true believer who is a fighter for all the things they believe in. Whatever you want to say about Clinton, that is not her.

In one obvious expression of this reality at the debate, Clinton, with her arms outstretched, appealed to the rest of the debate stage to admit that they, too, have repeatedly changed positions on issues over the years. “Well, you know,” she began, “everybody on this stage has changed a position or two. We’ve been around a cumulative quite some period of time.”

As the crickets chirped, and Clinton realized no one on the stage was going to give her cover, she awkwardly tried to salvage her point. “You know, we know that if you are learning, you’re gonna change your position. I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.”

I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone? Huh?

Back to the point, though, progressive activists are no more interested in this type of mealy mouthed, career politician doublespeak than their Republican cousins are.

The main difference is that the Democrats have had a leader — the president — and the Republicans have spent six years searching for one. As a result, the right’s groping in the darkness for someone to emerge is much more public, prolonged and messy.

But with the president no longer there to fill that vacuum, Democrats are now beginning to come to grips with what they do, and do not want, and what they want is more along the lines of Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, not Clinton. Ergo the louder, more frequent applause for Sanders.

There were some other candidates on the stage, however.

O’Malley, the twice-elected governor of Maryland, was trying so hard to be relevant that he came off as a pathetic sideshow, and a strangely unprepared one at that.

Chafee, the Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat-turned-gadfly candidate for president barely registered a pulse at the debate. When he did open his mouth, it wasn’t good. At one point he seriously argued that Democrats should ignore his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall because, hey, it was his first day in the Senate!

Then there was poor Jim Webb. If he were running for the Democratic nomination in 1948, he would have been right at home. Today? He is a man who has no constituency in the Democratic Party.

Beyond the candidates, though, the discussion of issues highlighted the more ideologically extreme Democratic party.

Everything will be free. Free early childhood education. Free expansion of Social Security. Free Medicare expansion, with free growth of prescription drug coverage. A $15 minimum wage free of business consequences. And of course, free college. Demonstrating the Democratic Party’s belief in fairy dust, this will not cost America anything, and the economy will simultaneously create millions of jobs!

But while the debate proved that the Democrats are just as captive to the same things — ideological extremism and crazy candidates — that the Republicans are, it also proved how the parties are in fact different.

Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans have an accomplished field of successful people, including six two-term (or more) governors, five prominent U.S. senators, two high-profile titans of business, and a pioneering neurosurgeon, who also happen to include two Cuban-Americans (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio), an Indian-American (Bobby Jindal), and an African-American (Ben Carson).

The Democrats are old, white, tired and unaccomplished by comparison, and nothing any of those people say on a debate stage can change that.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.