In the end, it seemed too easy. Hillary Clinton didn’t just win the first Democratic debate. She pretty much eliminated – for her purposes, anyway — the need for any others.
In this one debate, after all, she accomplished almost everything she set out to do.
The list was long, too — nearly as long as her long, hot summer. There was the trust issue. The Biden-as-savior issue. The Bern-mentum issue. The summer-of-hell issue. The email issue. The political-expediency issue.
She had to win the debate. But more than that, she had to assure the millions of Democrats watching the Vegas showdown that they had made the right bet on her in the first place. Let’s just say that going in, it was a near thing. But coming out of the debate, Clinton was showing her biggest smile, and I could have sworn it looked authentic. I’ll bet Joe Biden thought the same.
So, she was good. She was very good. Prepared, funny (yes, funny) and sharp. And the Democratic field is not so good. Jim Webb’s big moment was saying he killed a guy in ‘Nam. Lincoln Chafee moved from being an obscure, third-tier candidate to being an obscure, third-tier punch line. Martin O’Malley, who has been calling for more debates, made little mark in the first one.
And so the debate was really only about Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. Bernie was Bernie, meaning everything you’d expect. Impassioned, irascible, Bernie. Did he back off when asked if he believed in capitalism? Uh, what do you think? “Do I consider myself part of the casino-capitalist process,” he said, “by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.”
It’s why the 74-year-old self-described socialist is not only a cult figure, but is actually leading Clinton in New Hampshire. He’s matching her dollar for dollar. He’s the biggest draw in New England outside the Patriots. He has surprised everyone in this race, including himself.
But whatever else he is, he’s no match for Clinton on a debate stage, and that’s where you have to look presidential to be presidential.
From the opening remarks, Sanders, who didn’t even bother to mention his bio, showed that he was there to fight — to fight the banks, to fight Wall Street, to fight the one-percenters, to fight for the working class. He’d have made Debs himself proud.
Clinton showed that she was there to debate. And the debate came down to this: Sanders saying he was looking for a revolution, and Clinton saying, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
The crowd went nuts. For Clinton, whose summer of hell was largely of her own making, the debate was about making the case that if she wasn’t as far to the left as Bernie that she was, uh, liberal enough for the Democratic base. And that the programs she was ready to fight for were programs that she could explain in detail and turn into law. She even said that her plan to limit financial institutions was tougher than Bernie’s, and Bernie just laughed. But after laughing, he didn’t explain why she was wrong.
But the crowd seemed to buy it. And as the crowd cheered, Clinton made the case with every part of the Obama coalition she could find – with African-Americans, with Latinos, with women. The only targeting Sanders was doing was of Wall Street.
The pre-debate conventional wisdom was that Clinton’s biggest challenge would be figuring a way not to spend the night on the defensive. But hardly anyone figured she could pull that off by taking the fight to Sanders. But she didn’t go after Bernie as Bernie. She went after his stand on guns. She went after his stand on capitalism. She went after him on Denmark (OK, you had to be there).
At times, Sanders seemed flustered that a debate was a debate. Clinton, it seems, has done this thing before. In trying to explain his vote to give immunity to gun manufacturers, Sanders said the bill was “complicated.” Clinton countered that she remembered the details of the bill and that it wasn’t complicated at all. When Sanders said that “shouting” wouldn’t do any good on guns, it was Clinton demanding that Democrats stand up to the NRA.
It was as if we’d entered bizarro world. It wouldn’t be the last time.
When Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about the home-server email controversy, she went to her most recent answer — blaming the Republicans — for which she can thank Kevin McCarthy. When Cooper tried again, it was more than Sanders could take. This would be the YouTube moment of the debate, and it was Sanders, fed up, saying, “I think the secretary is right. And that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
It was time, he said, to discuss the real issues. And when Clinton thanked him, they shook hands, Hillary beaming.
It was a stand-up moment for Sanders. But the moment didn’t belong to him. And I don’t know what it says on the matter of Clinton and trust, but going into debate night, I trust that no one in the Hillary camp could have hoped for anything more.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr.