Towards a Reality-Based Democratic Debate

I won’t be live-blogging the next Democratic presidential debate thanks to the decision of the DNC to hold it on a sacrosanct Saturday. But there are, as it happens, two excellent pieces today at TNR that discuss what the three candidates should be talking about to provide Democratic primary voters with a reality-based series of choices.

The first, by Suzy Khimm, involves the actual choices a Democratic president would face given the extremely high likelihood that Republicans will hang onto the House and perhaps the Senate. That will heavily be influenced by the appetite and aptitude of said president for taking executive actions, especially in immigration and criminal justice policy. Khimm notes that some especially difficult decisions will have to be made in the latter area, since (a) bipartisan legislative action is a lively if not easy prospect, and (b) Democrats are not completely united about what to do at the federal level on, say, marijuana legalization. And then there’s this problem:

Some on the left…disagree, fearing that going too big on executive action could come back to haunt Democrats over the long haul. As University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner has argued in the New Republic, Obama’s turn to executive action on immigration could end up empowering future Republican presidents to push for non-enforcement of many other laws and regulations—and there are plenty, including environmental regulations and labor protections, that Republicans would love to get their hands on.

Meanwhile, Brian Beutler looks at the same partisan landscape and deduces quite logically that the possibility of a Republican trifecta should make electability–specifically HRC’s electability–a much bigger issue in the Democratic contest than it has been up until now.

Sanders earned a lot of good will in the first debate by absolving Clinton of Republican attacks on her handling of State Department email. O’Malley has been consistently critical of Clinton not for being unelectable, but, if anything, for thinking too calculatingly about staying electable. “History celebrates profiles in courage, not profiles in convenience,” O’Malley said when Clinton endorsed a right to same-sex marriage earlier this year.

That’s the wrong approach for a serious candidate in the political climate Democrats face. If either Sanders or O’Malley can mount a convincing argument that Clinton—despite a vast name-recognition advantage, and unique appeal to female voters—isn’t the most electable Democrat, they are doing both themselves and their party a disservice by not airing it.

In other words, the enormous constraints facing a Democratic president that Khimm outlines make the implicit arguments of Sanders and O’Malley that HRC is not ideologically trustworthy could be a bit beside the point–especially if you adjudge Clinton as more willing or able to pursue executive action.

Beutler does not tell us how Clinton’s rivals can make electability a concern without being perceived as piling onto Republican attacks on her that (a) have no credibility among Democrats but (b) seem to be affecting indie perceptions of her. Indeed, he views this as a challenge so difficult–especially given Democratic fears of sexism in any left-bent criticism of HRC–that it might well push Sanders and O’Malley into conceding early if they cannot solve it. We’ll have to see if either rival to Clinton can begin to thread that needle in the next debate.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.