Going into Tuesday night’s Democratic debate there were only two possible narratives that the media would choose. Either Clinton would do moderately well, in which case she would be heralded as the second coming of Barack Obama, or she would perform relatively poorly, in which case we’d be reading stories about Clinton’s downward spiral and Joe Biden’s emergence as the savior of Democrat’s 2016 hopes.
As it turned out we were treated to the former.
CNN’s Van Jones said, “Hillary Clinton was Beyonce. She was flawless.” The New York Times’ raved that her performance was “so commanding that even her greatest vulnerability . . . ended up redounding to her benefit.” Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin gave her an A, calling her “polished, carefully modulated and bursting with her favored buzz words.” Frank Bruni, apparently a fan of metaphor, called her a “seamstress,” a “chameleon,” and a “sorceress.” The Atlantic’s Jams Fallows commented that, “HRC had her best two hours of the past two years.” And the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank said that although Clinton “was a head shorter than her rivals . . . she towered over them.”
But if anything this debate showed the weakness of the other candidates in the Democratic primary, not the strength of Hillary Clinton. Martin O’Malley was soft-spoken, ineffectual, and unable to give a forceful defense of his record in Baltimore. Jim Webb, despite well thought out answers on foreign policy, energy and gun control, clearly wasn’t going to win over the crowd with his moderate brand of pragmatism. Lincoln Chafee was a disaster who kept blaming bad decisions on his lack of preparation and experience, a fact that doesn’t exactly instill confidence.
And then there was Bernie Sanders, who is a very difficult candidate to judge. On the one hand, he won most of the focus groups and dominated search engine traffic. But on the other hand, he came off as a one trick pony whose only real issue is making sure that millionaires and billionaires feel some degree of economic pain. His decision to yell for most of the debate may be exactly what fired-up primary voters are looking for, but as Ed Morrissey writes for Hotair, “he ended up sounding (and acting) like the crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving every year to rail about every crackpot conspiracy theory in existence.” Certainly, that will wear thin.
To her credit, Clinton navigated the wreckage of the other candidates with dexterity. She sidestepped a question meant to pin down whether she was a progressive or a moderate (she tends to change the label depending on the audience) by simply saying that she was a “progressive who likes to get things done.”
She used Bernie Sanders’ comments about his “democratic socialist” leanings and praise for Denmark to paint Sanders as a radical while allowing herself to hedge towards the middle.
“We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America,” Clinton said.
“[W]e would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world,” she continued.
And she was able to turn her answers to the early questions into judgments on the Republican candidates, a move that made her seem like the frontrunner and prevented the other candidates on stage from pointedly attacking her.
The strategy worked so well that even Bernie Sanders, who desperately needed to knock Clinton down a peg, conceded that Clinton’s emails are no longer an issue.
“I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails,” Sanders shouted.
“Thank you. Me, too. Me, too!,” Clinton said.
But Clinton won’t always be debating such a friendly field and won’t always be talking to such a friendly audience. She’ll have to answer questions about her foreign policy judgment, her ties to Wall Street, her innumerable flip-flops, and, whether she like it or not, her e-mails. As Ron Fournier writes for National Journal:
Character and judgment are gateway political issues. An untrustworthy candidate might check all your policy boxes, might tickle your ideological buttons, and might even grind away long enough to get your vote—but you’re not going to like it.
They may not like it now. But in just a few months, when the primaries are over and the general election begins, voters will also have better options.