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Democratic debate: A race to the left

Five candidates will take the stage in Tuesday's Democratic debate: Former Secretary of State, New York Sen. and first lady Hillary Clinton, self-declared socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. and Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island Gov. and Sen. Lincoln Chafee.

What can we expect? What do the candidates need to accomplish?


Some predictions are easy. CNN's Anderson Cooper, the lead moderator, has already warned us that the action will be far less combative — and thus far less interesting — than anything we saw at the first two Republican debates. So, aside from the real drama of a sudden appearance by Joe Biden, we can safely expect dull television playing to a far smaller audience. The candidates on stage all agree, of course, that the Republicans are to blame for all that ails the nation and the world. Expect them to be vocal about it. At some point, one or more will play the Trump card and take a potshot at the Donald. Expect him to respond in a manner so obnoxious and entertaining it will make your head spin.

Two of the candidates, Webb and Chafee, must answer the famed Stockdale questions: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Vice Admiral James Stockdale was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy. He posed those questions, however, as Ross Perot's running mate during the 1992 vice presidential debate — where he is best remembered as the guy who missed a question because his hearing aids didn't work. Webb and Chafee — neither of whose campaigns have generated any headlines since launch — must strive to do better. Don't expect it. By Wednesday, America will likely still be asking: Who were those guys? Why were they there?


The O'Malley campaign, by way of contrast, has managed to create a headline. It arose when the candidate made the seemingly innocuous comment that "all lives matter." O'Malley had apparently dreamed that he lived in a nation where a Democratic politician could judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement corrected his error; the governor promptly apologized. He would undoubtedly like to be remembered for something — anything — else. But, barring some act of fate, O'Malley isn't really on the stage for 2016; he is playing a long game. He is a relatively young man (52) in a party lacking next-generation leadership. Aside from President Barack Obama, who are the nation's most prominent Democrats in their 40s and 50s? The list is short. At some point, it will get longer — and O'Malley would like to be on it. Expect him to try to be memorable without again being controversial.

That leaves the two candidates actually boasting a presence in the polls. Bernie Sanders must avoid becoming the Ron Paul of the left — combining the fierce and committed support of a devoted core with a reputation for quackery among those outside his core. Sanders plays well on college campuses and among elitist armchair liberals, making his support the most lily-white of any candidate in either party. If he is serious about seeking the presidency, he must expand that base. He must speak to the minority voters who dominate the Democratic primaries in many states, and he must look plausibly presidential to the many Democrats for whom socialism sounds vaguely un-American. And he must achieve both of those goals without reducing the authenticity that fires his core supporters. Expect him to attempt some sort of outreach — but to fail. Sanders' greatest strength will prove his undoing. He is indeed an authentic socialist. When America seeks a socialist president, it will turn to Sanders. Until then, inauthentic politicians capable of humoring socialists will dominate the left.

Inauthenticity, of course, is Hillary Clinton's strong suit. Expect her to play to it repeatedly. Clinton approaches the stage with a rare problem. Unlike most of the other candidates in this race, Clinton already exudes gravitas and appears presidential. She does not, however, appear human. The Clinton campaign has somewhat embarrassingly issued a series of pronouncements about the candidate's new calculations to appear spontaneous, approachable, humble, trustworthy, relatable — and human. Her Twitter bio leads with "wife, mom, grandma." She knows this is her hurdle, so expect to see some feint in that direction Tuesday evening — though nothing likely to prove more successful than any of her previous attempts. Clinton can benefit Tuesday merely by looking big while all of her competitors look small. She can afford magnanimity — but not aloofness. But her greatest challenge is overcoming the shortcoming that tanked her inevitable candidacy in 2008: Progressives do not trust her progressivity. When it comes to Hillary Clinton, progressives, socialists, liberals and centrists all agree: They know what they see, but they have no idea what they would get. Expect to see more of the same this evening.

Content is likely to prove the least interesting aspect of this debate. The Democratic verdict on the Obama presidency is clear: He has been an enormously successful leader, restructuring America's health care, saving the economy, reducing our military footprint and engaging long-standing adversaries. His only shortcoming has been his lack of willingness to fight fully for progressive ideals. Expect all five candidates to share this view, more or less. Expect each one to find areas in which they can improve upon Obama's fine work — at least in the minds of Democratic partisans likely to vote in primaries. Expect them to oppose Obama's last-minute foray into free trade. Expect them to express disappointment in his failure to promote the draconian political agenda that climate change demands. Expect them to promise higher taxes and greater distribution. Expect them to promise greater cash payments and fewer training or employment opportunities to Americans in the three lowest income quintiles.

In short, expect to see the slippery slope of today's Democratic Party in action. The Obama administration has been far to the left of the Clinton administration, but not far enough for the Democratic base. Expect all five candidates to promise further leftward drift.

Commentary by Bruce Abramson, Ph.D., J.D. and Jeff Ballabon. Abramson is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, director of policy at the Iron Dome Alliance and a senior expert at Keystone Strategy. Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic where he advises and represents corporate and political clients on interacting with the government and media and guides foreign companies entering U.S. markets. He previously headed the communications and public policy departments of major media corporations including CBS News, Primedia and Court TV. Follow them on Twitter @bdabramson and @ballabon.