We're back in 2008

Story highlights

  • Democratic presidential candidate debate took place Tuesday night
  • Christian Whiton: Debate reflected leftward drift in party since Bill Clinton left office

Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation, a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy, and the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Democratic hopefuls vowed Tuesday night to take on Wall Street, lamented the invasion of Iraq and pledged to end climate change and soak the rich. The 2008 campaign called -- it wants its talking points back.

Aside from positions that are immoderate even for a Democratic primary season, the candidates postured as though they were founding some new insurgent party. In reality, they are trying to make the historically tough sell to the American people that their party deserves a third term in the White House. But talking up President Obama's achievements and appealing to the political center was obviously not what the candidates had in mind tonight.
Christian Whiton
Hillary Clinton needed to dispel concerns that she isn't honest or trustworthy. She didn't. Clinton defended her conduct in the classified email scandal by saying, "I've been as a transparent as I know to be." Sadly, this may be true. Other statements, like "we got a lot of business done with the Russians," and "I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone," were surpassed in cringe factor only by vapidities like, "we're going to be behind, instead of ahead."

    Minimal differences

    Bernie Sanders needed to sustain enthusiasm for his campaign while showing he could hold his own against Clinton and not terrify the Democratic establishment, which, while liberal, does not share his self-identification as "democratic-socialist." Time will tell if he succeeded. Sanders's views are way outside of the mainstream, but the differences between him and this left-leaning field seemed minimal tonight. This is more of a statement about them than him, but that probably won't register with left-leaning Democratic voters and donors. When pressed on a past lack of enthusiasm for some gun control measures, Sanders actually came across as moderate by calling for a focus on mental health and finding common political ground.
    Martin O'Malley needed to dispel concerns that he would turn America into a big Baltimore, replete with its racial division and economic dilapidation. His attempts to lay blame at his predecessors and successors didn't seem to succeed. His manner at times even came across as diffident, implying he may not be so sure himself.

    A leftward drift

    And then there were times when things got downright freaky, reflecting a leftward drift in the Democratic Party since Bill Clinton left office. For example, all of the candidates seemed to think the answer to illegal immigration was providing more government benefits to those here illegally.
    Other issues reinforced that the field is on the far left. The genuflections to the Black Lives Matter campaign play well with some Democratic activists, but are seen by many in middle America -- including many minorities -- as a political attack on cops to distract from urban problems that have only gotten worse in the last seven years. Clinton's call for a "new New Deal for communities of color" reveals a deeply held belief by this field that more government spending is the solution.
    Perhaps the biggest humdinger was when Sanders said that the greatest threat to our national security is climate change. With America demonstrably losing to Iran, the Islamists, Russia, and China -- and voters placing national security among the top issues of concern -- this seems ludicrous.

    Webb, Chafee struggle

    Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee weren't polished, but it was worse than that. Chafee seemed far out of his league, especially when he justified taking a since-regretted vote in the Senate because he was a newbie. Webb's complaining about the time allotted him was merely annoying the first time he did it. It became embarrassing the next several times. Unfortunately, this means that the frontrunners need not worry about occasional centrist ideas and policies being injected into the campaign. Webb and others who long for a more centrist Democratic Party will have to wait a while longer.
    The winner tonight was probably Sanders. It is hard not to like the man on some level given his candor and lack of pomposity. Age has softened his tone, and he is no longer the lone left-winger on the stage. And as for the big potential candidate that wasn't there? Well, Vice President Joe Biden probably didn't see anything to deter him from jumping into this race.