WASHINGTON — At some point during Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, many people in living rooms across the country undoubtedly turned to each other with the same basic thought about Hillary Clinton: Oh, so that’s why she’s the front-runner.
They also experienced something historic: For the first time in the modern political era, Americans got to watch leaders of a mainstream political party debate the relative merits of capitalism and democratic socialism. And for once, socialism was cast not as the ideology that produced a brutal dictatorship in the old Soviet Union, but as a benign and, yes, democratic outlook that has created rather attractive societies in places such as Denmark and Sweden.
Whatever happens to Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, he will deserve credit for having widened our political horizons.
Anyone who compares this encounter with the Republican debates will learn a great deal. Democrats are far more united than Republicans, who are in a shambles. Democrats are the party of what the political consultants like to call kitchen-table issues — family leave, higher wages, and kids being able to afford college — while Republicans are the party of ideology and abstractions. And, if I may borrow from Politico’s puckish writer Glenn Thrush: “A Trump-less debate is a smarter debate.”
Clinton won several victories on Tuesday. She was in command throughout and seemed happy to be there. This has not always been her disposition in the long slog since the story broke about her email server. She maintained her good mood and big smile in the face of repeated challenges from CNN’s questioners, deploying the classic Clinton strategy of insisting that the campaign is about what the voters need, not what the media and the GOP want to talk about.
This is where her most important victory came, with a key assist from Sanders. The sound bite played over and over was created when Sanders agreed with Clinton by asserting: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
The crowd exploded into loud applause and raucous cheers. Of course it was a partisan audience, but that is the point. Tuesday marked the moment when the email kerfuffle became a partisan matter — exactly what Clinton has wanted it to be. It will take a major new revelation to move the story back to its old dominant position in the news.
The debt Clinton owes to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is incalculable. Not only did he say that a primary goal of the House Republicans’ Benghazi investigation was to lower Clinton’s poll numbers. He said it at exactly the right time, before this debate, giving Clinton in particular and Democrats in general their rallying cry, just when they needed it. Gratitude is a virtue, so if Clinton should win the presidency, she might offer McCarthy an ambassadorship to Ireland — or France or Britain or anywhere he wants to go. House Republicans are in such a mess that he might take the job.
But the debate’s most substantive contribution was to the larger philosophical argument the country needs to have in 2016. Republicans plainly still believe their central mission is cutting taxes, shredding regulations and shrinking government. Americans who agree should vote for them.
Democrats clearly believe that government has a role to play in solving the problems of unequal opportunity, imbalances between family life and work, concentrated economic power and wage stagnation. Clinton’s best personal moment may have been when she defended mandated paid family leave from the critique advanced by Republican contender Carly Fiorina that it would be an excessive burden on small business.
Clinton went straight at the GOP’s contradictions: “It’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care,’” she said. “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. ... We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘Big Government this, Big Government that.’”
And one way to end this paralysis is to show, as Sanders is doing, that social democratic countries — including Denmark, another of the night’s stars — have thrived over the years with far more social provision than we have.
Setting the boundaries of debate is one of the most important tasks in politics. We now have a more realistic sense of the choices before us: Sanders’ unapologetic democratic socialism, Clinton’s progressive capitalism, and the Republicans’ disdain for government altogether. Guess who occupies the real political center?
E.J. Dionne is a nationally syndicated columnist.