In contrast to a Republicans party fighting to take the hardest, most conservative line on most issues presented in their two debates, the five Democrats on stage for their first presidential debate in Las Vegas displayed a relatively unified front on what are likely to be the major issues of the 2016 campaign.
The differences were more nuances than complete opposition. Even on President Barack Obama, their positions were at worst polite disagreement. Compared to the bickering and harsh insults of the Republican party, the sense of respect and civility was refreshing and virtually unheralded at any time in the history of presidential campaigns.
In spite of a primary that shapes up to be a battle between the centrist and progressive wings of the party, the leading Democratic candidates have proven willing to cast themselves as the vanguard of Obama’s legacy. On the other hand, the Republicans still struggle to come out from the ominous shadow cast by George W. Bush’s presidency with the result being a party struggling to find direction with an acrimony towards its leadership.
“You would expect in a Democratic primary field when people are crossing a broad ideological spectrum that they might be critical of the incumbent no matter who the incumbent is,” Democratic pollster and strategist Celinda Lake said. “But I think Democrats demonstrated that across the spectrum it’s good to run with the president rather than against him.”
Leading Democrats made it clear at their first debate that they do not view most of the Obama presidency as broken. Candidates promised to continue to improve and refine the Affordable Care Act, maintain if not extend his immigration orders and continue to press forward in stemming global climate change. Outside of the clear-cut disagreement over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, other issues like immigration, gun control, Wall Street and the lack of growth of the middle class were met with minimal discord.
“I think everybody on that stage at the debate affirmed what I have said in the past,” Obama noted to reporters the day after the debate. “Which is we agree on 95 percent of stuff and on the basic vision of a country.”
This embrace of Obama is both deliberate as well as spontaneous. Obama has wide popularity with many parts of the Democratic Party’s core groups: Latinos, blacks, single women and young voters. With Obama carrying an 80 percent approval rating within the party and 90 percent among liberal Democrats, it would be foolish to alienate these groups.
Words From Clinton
While she did make sure to emphasize points of contention with Obama, speaking harshly of his record on immigration and his struggles in Syria, Hillary Clinton utilized her largest audience of the campaign to promise to build upon Obama’s successes and go beyond them. Not only did she embrace Obama, but used his appointment of her to Secretary of State to diffuse criticism of her initial vote on the Invasion of Iraq.
“After the election,” Hillary noted. “He asked me to become the secretary of state. He valued my judgment and I spent a lot of time with him.”
Similarly, Clinton’s rivals for the nomination preferred to not attack Obama. “I have a lot of respect for President Obama. I have worked with him time and time again on many, many issues,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ message was a softer sell of his call to wrest control of the government from corporate media and the financial sector.
In spite of the collective support of the president and his policies, the strife between the left wing of the party and its centrists was present. Senator Sanders called for a deconstruction of big banks. Hillary Clinton suggested that the United States needed to take more of a leadership position in Syria. Nevertheless compared the Republican debates, restraint was shown.
The rank and file of the GOP has battled both Obama and their own leadership for the entirety of his presidency. This conflict has reached a flash point in the recent sparring over the new Speaker of the House. Meanwhile Republican voters throw their early support behind candidates from well outside the establishment as Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson sit atop their presidential polls.
To date in their debates, Republicans have clashed over government spending, bipartisanship, immigration policy and lessons of the George W. Bush presidency. This last one is most important for the health of their party as the popularity, or lack of such, of the incumbent tends to determine whether the party fragments or falls in line.
The final years of the his presidency left both Bushes unpopular and shoved aside. Similarly, the end of Lyndon Johnson’s term left the Democrats searching for a new voice. Much like the GOP rallying around Reagan heading into the 1988 campaign, the Democrats are showing themselves ready to enter 2016 looking to improve upon a presidency that has left the party happy.
But the Republican will focus on their perceived negatives of the Obama presidency. In spite of his solid approval among Democrats, Obama’s overall job rating sits at 46 percent according to the most recent Gallup polls. Pollsters are finding a disapproval of the general direction of the country and growing disdain for the government.
Even with this dissatisfaction, both parties’ nominees will need to present a clear vision that appeals to voters beyond the base. In 2012, we saw the Republican Party learn that winning its primary would not assure them the general election. It was a rude awakening for a party that ignored polls and trusted their pundits at their peril.