Hillary Clinton, a Socialist, and Three No Names Walk Into a Casino

Feature: What I saw at the first Democratic debate

Gary Locke

LAS VEGAS—I like to think of myself as nostalgic, though my wife is quick to point out that most of the things I pine for—smoking on airplanes, a church in which the traditional Latin Mass is celebrated exclusively, TV limited to the Big Three and public broadcasting—disappeared before I was born. She is right, of course, especially when she catches me talking about how I miss the "old Democratic Party."

What do I mean by this? Not Clintonite "triangulation" or the countercultural loucheness of McGovern, but the party of FDR and Truman and Moynihan, the party that represented the aspirations and attitudes of working-class people, that saw America through the Depression and won the Second World War, the party of UAW men and Knights of Columbus and public works schemes.

Whatever else might be said of it, the Democratic is the more romantic of our two major parties. I suppose my affection for it goes back to early childhood, when I wore my Robin Hood Halloween costume to the supermarket and wondered why the Trix Rabbit was being denied his basic cereal rights.

For most people paid to be there, the first Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday was a tedious affair. In the press filing room at the Wynn luxury resort—tower suites from $666 a night—groans alternated with silence for most of the evening, and afterwards journalists snickered about how the whole thing was a foregone conclusion, Hillary Clinton was going to be our next president, are we going to the casino first or the strip club, etc. A few reacted more strongly. A hotel staffer whom I met during a cigarette break asked me whether I could guess why she was no longer watching: "Because it made me want to strangle people!"

For the determined would-be nostalgic, however, the evening was not without charm. Fool that I am, I confess that at the level of personalities anyway, I like three of the candidates in the Democratic field very much. I could not help but smile when the first one to speak, after the ghastly rendering of the national anthem, was Lincoln Chafee. That poor man! I have gotten a lot of guff for saying so over the years, but I like him. A classics major at Brown, a trained farrier, an Episcopalian descended from a venerable political and industrial dynasty, he embodies the old-fashioned WASP ethos of selflessness and upright public service that has all but vanished now.

"I have never had a scandal," Chafee said in the first of the evening’s scarce laugh lines. "I have high ethical standards." The thing is, though, I believe him: I’m sure the list of bad or mean things he has never done is as long and detailed as the résumé he recited ("I served on the Foreign Relations Committee and I chaired the Middle East Subcommittee for four years") when asked to introduce himself to voters. When he said that the controversy surrounding Clinton’s email was a "huge issue" and a threat to America’s credibility among her allies, one got the sense that a) he was genuinely disgusted with her lying and b) he had probably not spent much time with computers. I loved the sheepish smile he gave when Anderson Cooper, the best moderator we have seen so far in the current cycle of debates, asked him to name an enemy. But this moment also reminded me why my liking Chafee is equal parts whimsy and patronage. "The coal lobby"? He is a fop and a credulous one. His dogged good nature is his own worst enemy. I hope there is room for him in the next administration, Republican or Democratic, as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts or ambassador to Belgium or something similarly dotty.

Jim Webb is a different matter. He is a genuine favorite of mine. Absent one issue (about which more anon) I would be tempted to say that he is the man I want in the White House. His thinking is incisive and original on subjects the other candidates haven’t even heard of—only one Republican so far, Jeb Bush, has touched on the shabby state of our intelligence service and the increasingly fraught issue of online security, two of Webb’s major themes. Webb is a good writer and often a first-rate speaker, but he did very poorly on Tuesday night, giving viewers the impression that, besides being out of step with his party, he is irritable and washed up.

Webb’s constant whining—this is the only word for it—about not getting enough time was bad on its own terms and would have reflected poorly on anyone in politics with the exception of Ben Carson, whose schtick is that he does not participate in the debates that he attends. For the author of Born Fighting it was very bad—probably the single stupidest thing I’ve seen anyone do in these debates so far, though I hesitate to use the word "disaster" in relation to a campaign that is already polling around 0.9 percent.

Why do these minor candidates think voters care about bills they introduced a decade ago or minor posts they held before the Internet was invented? I first noticed it with George Pataki and Rick Santorum during the last Republican debate. Chafee and Webb were awful about this on Tuesday. There are better ways of skirting around the fact that you’ve been out of public service for a while, gentlemen.

Martin O’Malley is not quite a "type" the way Chafee and Webb are. I want for the life of me to see him as a classic machine politician in the tradition of James Farley and the Daleys. He isn’t one, alas, though a friend of mine tells me that he is very good at pub trivia. His record is that of a not particularly interesting or controversial governor who did the sort of things—making noise about gun control, signing gay marriage legislation—expected of other Democrats around the time he was in office. He would like, I think, to be a sort of consensus candidate, the Clinton without the scandals that Joe Biden is expected to be should he join the race, but there’s nothing doing there. Rumors sometimes make the rounds about the coming O’Malley oppo dump that will be the end of Clinton, but that’s all tosh. I notice that he was very polite about President Obama’s record throughout the night, more so even than Clinton. Surely he is pulling for energy secretary.

Bernie Sanders was the second best performer of the evening. He was amusing and articulate throughout and, when he saved MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell from a herd of stampeding reporters, even gallant. What grassroots elements turned out at the Wynn, not a very Sanders-esque venue, were there for him. He did not spare millionaires or billionaires, but he also branched out. His focused, specific response to needling about gun control from the moderators and his fellows on stage did not come off as special pleading (at least to me). Vermont and Maryland are very different states. His insistence on this was typical of him at his most commensensical.

Unfortunately, Sanders’s most commonsensical moments are pretty rare. I share his disgust with conspicuous consumption and find myself at the very least wary of how our financial system is organized. I also think that his brand of class warfare is, on the whole, a much nobler enterprise than the racial grievance-mongering pushed by others on the left (and deftly saluted by Clinton and O’Malley on Tuesday). Still, I have a hard time taking his spending proposals seriously. A trillion for this, a trillion for that—if I were Anderson Cooper I would have asked him how many billions and millions, respectively, there are in a trillion. Could he have answered? I suspect that even those Americans who accept his diagnosis of what’s wrong with capitalism will reject his socialist prescriptions. As Webb put it toward the end of the evening, "I don’t think the revolution’s gonna come."

Finally, we reach Mrs. Clinton. What is there to say about her? Clinton is an extraordinary paradox. She won Tuesday’s debate, just as I think she is likely to win her party’s nomination and perhaps even the White House, despite the fact that she is the least likeable Democrat in the race. Chafee the U.S. equivalent of an uncle in a P.G. Wodehouse story, Webb the Scotch-Irish badass, O’Malley the most reasonable-sounding Irish pol America has ever met, Bernie the last best hope of an entire generation of tofu eaters and and the guru of two younger ones, and Clinton the—well, what exactly? The baking and scrunchie-wearing grandmother? The sober stateswoman of Hard Choices? The senile authoritarian familiar to readers of her emails, forever surrounded by toadies and flatterers, perpetually assured that all is well until it suddenly isn’t?

Yet she did win. It was clear that Clinton had practiced, that she was ready especially for Sanders’s challenge from the left and for Cooper’s questions about trustworthiness. She looked good, too. Her smiles were more genuine. She did not sneer or grow impatient. Her terse "no" in response to Chafee’s feeble efforts on the email front was almost worthy of her husband. It reminded me of something that anyone who has watched her recent public appearances might forget, namely, that she can be clever and eloquent when she needs to be. The only awkward line from her all night was an aborted attempt at chumminess ("We’ve been around a cumulative … quite some period of time").

All this is a polite way of saying that the insurance, big pharma, crony finance, green-tech, Third-World-dictator-sleazebag constituency that she and Bill represent is the future of the Democratic Party, and there is nothing Sanders—whose memorable line about her emails was actually a significant concession—or anyone else can do about it. It is a betrayal of people like my grandparents who pulled the lever for decades without dreaming that Roosevelt had built a clearing house, much less an abattoir. (In my view the gulf between a party for whom abortion on demand is an article of faith and one that makes even a pretense of opposing it is one between darkness and light, between, well, death and life—hence my inability to support even a very good man like Webb.) It is an insult to the party’s earnestly progressive activist base as well.

Wandering the halls of the Wynn after the debate, I got the sense that I was not the only one to recognize this and feel bad about it. A young woman I saw coming out of the Sanders viewing party a few doors down from the spin room, looking wistfully at no one in particular, was wearing, of all things, a Robin Hood outfit.

Dear Robin Hood girl, wherever you might be, I would have asked you for a comment, but I didn’t. Not because I feared whatever accusations of microaggression your friends might have hurled at me, but out of respect, both emotional and aesthetic, for your reverie—and because I thought you would be more useful to me as a silent symbol. In any case, I hope I misinterpreted that look, and that you were and remain blissfully happy and full of hope. We must cherish our illusions.