Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at Sunday night's Democratic debate. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)
In many ways, January of 2016 is starting to look an awful lot like January of 2008 for the Democrats.Here we are again with three candidates: a frontrunner, a populist insurgent, and a long shot. Martin O'Malley is filling the role played by John Edwards in '08—a clear-eyed, vaguely folksy, JFK type who is being mostly ignored by the electorate. Bernie Sanders is this race's (older, whiter) Barack Obama, a candidate whose optimistic message of change is attracting young people. Hillary Clinton is, well, Hillary Clinton.
Just as in '08, she's besieged by an underdog whose sudden rise in the polls was (somehow) reportedly underestimated again by her campaign. And, with two weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, the story in the Democratic race is Sanders's surge, and whether Clinton can successfully handle herself in the face of growing pressure this time around.That was the dynamic headed into Sunday night's Democratic debate in Charleston, South Carolina, which was hosted by NBC News just days after the Republicans ripped themselves to shreds a few blocks away. Make no mistake: This debate was about Sanders.Throughout the evening, the self-avowed democratic socialist Senator's proposals and positions, and how to pay for them, were repeatedly called in question—a sign that he is being taken seriously. It's also a sign that the moderators were trying to get Clinton and Sanders to go after each other a bit more; the Democrats have not been nearly as contentious or negative as their GOP counterparts. The two did attack each other at times, even if criticisms were often followed by, "But I do agree with…"From the gate, Clinton knew to hit Sanders on gun control, an issue that is critical in Charleston after June's mass shooting. She rattled off an obviously prepared list of pro-gun bills that Sanders supported in the Senate, and followed that with gun violence numbers, passionately stating, "Let's not forget what this is about."
In response, Sanders called Clinton "disingenuous," but did admit that he had reversed his support for a bill that gave legal immunity to gun manufacturers. The exchange was brief, and almost immediately defused when Sanders said he'd reexamine the bill, which Clinton applauded.At other moments, the two battled over which one was more authentic. On the issues of policing and race relations, Clinton looked to establish herself as the lifelong liberal fighter, producing a coherent platform of what she'd do as president. When Sanders interjected, basically repeating what she had said, it seemed to be an attempt not to give her the final word on the subject.The tensest part of the mostly drama-light night came when they were discussing healthcare. Recently Clinton's campaign has gone after Sanders for his pledge to replace the Affordable Care Act with Medicaid for everyone. Here Clinton was positioning herself as an inheritor to Obama and a defender of his legacy. "Why rip down Obamacare?" she asked Sanders, after stressing her own experience fighting for healthcare. "We've accomplished so much already. I don't want to see Republicans repeal it." Sanders, who reminded Clinton that he helped write the Affordable Care Act, harkened back to the policies of Democratic titans like FDR and Truman to justify his position.This is the central conflict in the Democratic Party at the moment: Should it be a center-left coalition that pursues incremental and market-oriented change, or should it be trying to push the US closer to Europe, where healthcare is more often seen as a fundamental human right?The candidates were also divided when it came to Wall Street, where Sanders is strongest. On Sunday he finally went after Clinton's deep ties to the financial sector. "I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs" was, arguably, his most popular line of the night. He scored even more points by stating how large the banks have gotten since 2008, and made Clinton's rebuttal—that reforms passed under Obama were a sign that progress was being made—seem underwhelming. O'Malley (remember him?), who spent the night trying to get a word in edgewise, jumped in to criticize Clinton on that as well.What was striking throughout the night, however, was how clearly the candidates were on the same team. Sanders largely agreed with Clinton when it came to foreign policy, and didn't deny that she knew what she was talking about when it came to diplomacy or healthcare. He told her that her problems with his Medicaid-for-all plan were the same as Republican criticism, but stopped well short of implying there was no difference between Clinton and the GOP field. He also refused to answer a question on Bill Clinton's love life, which had to have been one of the most awkward moments on the stage.So far, the big difference between 2008 and 2016 is that eight years ago the Democratic campaign was vicious, with the Clinton campaign running an ad that implied Obama wasn't prepared to be president, among other incidents. That level of negativity hasn't been seen so far this year—it's a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, but it's been a surprisingly polite one thus far. We'll see if that continues after the Iowa caucuses.Follow John Surico on Twitter.