Tuesday’s debate by the five Democratic candidates for President kept reminding me of something but I just couldn’t dredge up the memory. Then it all came back. This sounded a lot like bull sessions in my college dorm. With all our adolescent bravado, we would vehemently argue for this or that progressive policy that would cure societal ills, real and imagined. All that mattered was building a better society, or at least one that was more fair in how benefits and burdens are distributed. Cost was rarely discussed, but the general consensus was that whatever was needed could be easily extracted from those damned plutocrats. It was a bit exhilarating.
There was even a direct connection between those long-ago sessions and this week’s debate. Although I didn’t know him at the time, Bernie Sanders attended the University of Chicago at the same time as I did. Since then I have grown up and have been exposed to the real world, where few issues are black and white and where difficult choices must be made. Not so much Bernie, and his confidence stems from decades of speaking the same simple truths as he sees them.
To digress for a moment, don’t you think there is something wondrous about the choice of Las Vegas, of all places, as the venue? I occasionally enjoy Sin City, where pretty much anything goes. Do you think that its motto, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas!”, may have relaxed the candidates a bit and loosened their tongues? That must have been true for Lincoln Chafee when Anderson Cooper challenged him to justify his vote to deregulate the big banks in 1999. The bemused Cooper obviously felt that he must have misheard when Chafee dismissed this by responding, “Glass-Steagall was my very first vote. I’d just arrived and my dad had died in office.”
Although Hillary made a poised and clear case for her candidacy, and probably sank any prospects for Joe Biden to interfere, Bernie dominated the stage. He set the agenda and the tone. At best the others, including Hillary, just riffed on Bernie’s themes. And in a constantly rising bass, his melody was socialism at its best, or worst depending on your political perspective. He even made quite clear what model he was seeking, the Scandinavian brand, and in particular Denmark. This gave Hillary a small opening to assert a bit of common sense, pointing out that the U.S. and Denmark make a distinctly odd couple.
The other three participants made little impact and could probably have been replaced by random picks from the audience for all that they mattered. They seem nice enough people but surely even they can’t see themselves as President of the United States.
Overall, this debate puts the Republican events thus far to shame. Real policies were discussed, there was no personal invective, and locker-room cheer-leading was kept to a minimum. Perhaps the Republicans will do better when their crowd is pruned. But Trump continues to dominate their stage, much as Bernie did this week. His theme is equally invigorating but far less specific. As Jimmy Fallon perceptively noted, it is “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled. And that oddly seems to be enough for his many supporters.