One easy conclusion from Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate is that the party is far ahead of the Republicans. The contest was substantive and courteous and viewers should have come away with a clear sense of what Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton support. In contrast, the Republican contests this summer were good television but shallow politics, dominated by Donald Trump and highlighted by zingers and personal attacks over who would build the biggest border wall rather than ideas.
Should we conclude that the Democrats have their act together? No. That's too simple. Viewed another way, the Democrats are in such disarray that Clinton, the highly bankrolled establishment candidate, is at risk of being toppled by a man who doesn't blanch at calling himself a socialist and said he doesn't support capitalism.
In Sanders, the Democratic Party is flirting with a nominee whom any moderate Republican could probably crush in a general election. That doesn't point to the Democrats as a model of organization and unity. The Republicans, of course, always flirt with nominating extreme conservatives whom a moderate Democrat could probably defeat easily. But to claim the Democrats are way ahead ignores the fact that the Republicans have a dominant House majority: that's why they get to have a messy speaker's race. They also have the Senate majority. So the idea that the nation is turning on them doesn't fly.
In truth, both parties are disheveled and a bit frantic, because the people of the United States are unsettled and fearful. Though it did not equal the blockbuster ratings of the first two GOP Trumptaculars, Tuesday's event still set a viewership record for Democratic debates. Such numbers 13 months before the election are not evidence of a serene and happy populace.
With median incomes stagnating, people are broke. With college costs rising and good jobs waning, people fear for their children. With the climate warming and no cheap solutions, they are scared for the planet but concerned that remedies will leave them poorer or out of work. The issues are many: China, immigration, Europe and the Middle East, taxes and the national debt, as well as Medicare and Social Security slowly moving toward insolvency. Polls on the national mood find anxiety is the chief emotion that crops up.
One reason the Democrats had a more policy focused debate was that there were only five candidates on stage. With ample time, the Democrats explained their positions on guns, financial regulation, the Patriot Act, public college tuition and military interventions. We need the same opportunity to hear specifics from the GOP candidates. The Republican candidates garnering little support are beginning to do their party a disservice by staying in the race.
Largely disgusted with self-serving elected officials and fractious institutions, the public is looking for change in the way our government conducts its business and in the path our future will take. The winners will be the candidate and party that can illuminate that path.