I was honestly concerned prior to Tuesday's night's CNN debate that the Democrats would begin to adopt some of the inchoate blurting tactics of the GOP field, led of course by serial trolls Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Clearly it's a keen strategy for garnering hours of free airtime from literally every news media outlet, and "the folks" seem to love it. So, why not adopt the same ridiculousness on the Democratic side? My biggest fear has been that, to some degree, it still might happen.
But after the first debate last night, it still hasn't.
In fact, for the first time in months, voters got a much needed refresher course on what it means to actually be presidential -- what it looks like when serious people talk about about serious solutions to serious problems.
Not once last night did we hear any speeches about how "terrific" each candidate might be, or, conversely, how one or more of the candidates thinks the other candidates are "weak" or "low energy." We didn't hear any denying of science nor did we hear anyone pledge to strip millions of Americans of their healthcare and reproductive rights.
We don’t exactly know how the rest of the campaign will suss out, but it was a good sign that the Democratic hopefuls aren’t playing that game. Sure, there are two mutually exclusive political factions, and the Democrats are only one of them. But as long as one of those factions is somewhat grounded in reality and seriousness, I think we’ll be okay. If both sides succumb to the new GOP approach, we’re screwed. It could still happen, after all, so mine is a cautious optimism.
For at least half of voters who bothered to watch, the debate was a necessary reminder about how candidates, especially at the presidential level, ought to comport themselves. "Presidential" still matters. It might not have much bearing on the issues, but after too many months of laser-focus on Trump and the others, the debate yanked the pendulum of decorum toward seriousness and dignity and away from the GOP's comparative reputation as a bag full of poop-flinging monkeys. As long as the Democrats don’t take the Trump bait and manage to hold it together, they'll continue to represent a critical firewall against the GOP effort to reduce politics into a series of Johnny Knoxville "Jackass" stunts.
While there will be an ongoing debate about who specifically won the debate, what any reasonable observer has to conclude is this: rationality and behaving like a grownup won. Furthermore, the ratings for the debate were nonetheless the best ever for a Democratic showing, proving that Trump and his aforementioned poop-flinging aren't prerequisites for a well-watched presentation. Amazing that voters would dial into a broadcast debate even though it lacked, to borrow from O'Malley, a carnival barker -- or, for that matter, several carnival barkers.
In terms of how all of this plays out next November and beyond, it's entirely possible that the contrast between the two parties could serve to pull the country decisively leftward, winning over moderate voters. For the last 30 years, American politics has been moving steadily rightward, making the conservatives of yesteryear like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush seem like moderate Democrats today. Meanwhile, conservatives of 2015 have moved to the extreme right flank of the political spectrum while simultaneously embracing a virulent new brand of reactionary populism. This was successful for a number of reasons, but especially because over preceding decades conservatives were able to paint liberalism as effete and ineffectual.
That narrative is crumbling now. When Michael Dukakis was riding around in army tanks, the idea had a certain appeal. But with the ascension of Barack Obama and now at least two or three worthy heirs to that legacy, liberalism is turning more and more into a proud boast rather than a dark secret.
In other words, by selling progressive ideas with unapologetic ownership and maturity, as a majority of the candidates managed to do with at least some success, the moderate voters who decide elections these days will pay attention to those ideas and realize they're not just radical lefty positions, but that they actually make sense -- that income equality, gender equality and mitigating the climate crisis are mainstream ideas, especially in contrast to nonsense like Trump’s stupid border wall or Ben Carson's childish "tithing" tax plan. If moderates and undecided voters buy into the unabashedly progressive ideas of Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley, and they see those ideas delivered with strength and leadership qualities worthy of the American presidency, the slow rightward drift of the political conversation will be drawn the other way.
It’s still too early to say whether this shift will actually happen, but it could. Or, put another way, reversing the influence of the GOP's grabassery is mandatory, and if the Democrats fail to present a counterpoint to it, the horrendously damaging impact will be irreversible, heralding a series of incompetent chief executives who are great at putting on a show but who are entirely incapable of actually doing the serious things required of the presidency.