Democrats Debate: Right or Wrong, But Not Crazy

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13:  Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Hillary Clinton shake
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 13: Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and Hillary Clinton shake hands at the end of a presidential debate sponsored by CNN and Facebook at Wynn Las Vegas on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Five Democratic presidential candidates are participating in the party's first presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The real accomplishment of the Democratic presidential debate was to illuminate how the reactionary extreme of the Republican party has dominated the national political consciousness. We've been through months of a Republican primary campaign that has dumbfounded the nation for it's entertaining craziness. The big takeaway from the Dem debate is that none of the candidates are crazy, that it's possible to listen as well as talk, and that American politics thrive on ideas. Boy, we needed that reminder.

The Democratic candidates differed, profoundly, on things like the Iran deal, the use of American military power, and how to address income inequality. Those were interesting debates, but secondary.

They're different people. Bernie knows how to rev up the base. O'Malley is sharp and pointed. Chafee brings a warm eccentricity. I want Jim Webb next to me in a fist fight. Hillary finally sounded like a human being you could understand, and tough. They have different styles, different ways of leading, and different personal attributes, but also secondary.

But none of them were crazy.

Compare that to the Republican wall-building, government-shutdown, destroy Planned Parenthood, investigate Benghazi and emails, fire Boehner, climate change denying, gun-toting, repeal Obamacare and gay marriage crowd that has sucked all the political oxygen out of the room. What the Democratic debate accomplished was to remind Americans who are not part of the Tea Party echo chamber that ideas, civility and self-restraint are the real currency of American politics. It's not that the Dems are smarter, or nicer or more honest than Republicans. It's that they are not crazy.

The Republican melt-down has been notable for the refusal of moderate and traditional Republicans to stand up to the Tea Party. That seems to be changing. David Brooks, an old-style Republican and oft-time apologist for right-wing excess, flipped out in today's New York Times, finally calling out the wreckers and extremists, and threatened a third-party (he means the Times' favorite son Mike Bloomberg). The real beneficiary of this, and the stark contrast of the Democratic debate, is Jeb Bush. Weak and low-energy he may be but he's not crazy.

The insoluble problem for the Republicans is that their voters are driving the campaign, not the candidates. It's not about ideology. There is room for debate about conservative policy initiatives. Right or wrong, we benefit from being pushed to rethink old ideas and fashion new ones. The Tea Party identified real problems. But there now appears to be a voting majority in the Republican Party that rejects the social and political bases of American democracy. We're a beacon of liberty around the word because we embraced inclusion, compromise and the legitimacy of those who disagree with us. Tell that to Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or the Freedom Caucus.

"Not crazy." Who could have predicted that the first great achievement of the 2016 campaign was to reassert the primacy of sanity in presidential races?

For the record, the most engaging moment of the evening was Bernie Sanders waving his arms in defense of Hillary's email problem. The most important lesson is that patience and faith in ideas can be good politics. The great political opportunity is to continue to perform with decency and intelligence. The great unanswered question is whether enough people were listening. "Vote Democratic: We're Not Crazy."