Hillary Clinton faced a moment of real jeopardy in the first Democratic debate. A lot of Democrats have been getting jittery about her poll numbers and her inability to put away stories about her email server. A bad debate could have caused a panic, and maybe tipped Vice President Joe Biden toward running against her.
But Clinton triumphed. The other candidates failed to take multiple opportunities to disparage her ethics, her flip-flops and her electability. None of them said that Clinton has done a lot to justify the public's perception of her as untrustworthy, or that this perception could doom Democrats' chances of keeping the White House if she is the nominee. This would have been a harsh criticism, to be sure, and many Democrats would have disliked hearing it. But that is, fundamentally, the case against her being the Democratic nominee.
Instead of making it, Bernie Sanders even defended her on the email issue, saying he was sick of hearing about it a sentiment with which she heartily, and surely sincerely, agreed.
Clinton's rivals left it to CNN's moderator Anderson Cooper to offer the most pointed criticisms. Her worst moment was her response to the first question: Cooper asked about her transparently primary-driven flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-nation free-trade deal she supported as secretary of state and then criticized last week. The other Democrats declined to follow up. When she dismissed the controversy over the personal email account she used instead of a secured State Department account, calling it a partisan Republican witch hunt, it was Cooper who noted that the FBI is investigating and that President Barack Obama had rebuked her over it.
Clinton didn't just benefit from opponents who refused to go negative. She also effectively parried their few efforts to go after her. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley suggested that she shouldn't be president because of her vote for the Iraq war; she pointed out that he had backed her presidential campaign in 2008, long after that vote. She did an effective job of sticking to her most popular policies: The increased minimum wage got an early mention, and she talked about paid family leave every chance she could.
And while much of the debate consisted of Democrats out-lefting each other competing, for example, over who was most hostile to the National Rifle Association, an organization more popular than any of those Democrats Clinton was also careful to keep herself from being pegged as an extremist. She stood by her vote for the Patriot Act, and disagreed with Sanders's advocacy of "democratic socialism" as superior to capitalism.
Democratic elites officeholders, big donors, strategists and so forth will be relieved by her performance. But it remains to be seen how one particular member of that elite, Biden, will react. He could find her performance impressive and decide that she is not vulnerable to a challenge. Or he could decide that she is vulnerable indeed, given how low her poll numbers have been in Iowa and New Hampshire against such weak rivals.
And for all her caution, she might not be positioning herself well for the general election. This is not just a matter of being too liberal. The public wants a change after two terms of Obama a sentiment it would have even if he were more popular than he is.
When he ran to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, George H.W. Bush felt he had to promise a "kinder, gentler nation" as a way of separating himself from the incumbent. Separation would seem to be more important today, given how dissatisfied people are with the state of the country. (Even Democrats: Clinton should have listened to Sanders's litany of complaints about the economy at the end of two Obama terms.) But Clinton voiced no specific disagreement with the Obama administration and outlined no new direction. Asked to name a difference, she invoked her sex.
She is nonetheless on track to win her party's nomination. Lincoln Chafee's goals in the debate, assuming he had any, were mysterious. Sanders at one point talked about the need to raise the public's consciousness. Clinton is doing something different: running for president. She often seemed to be the only person on the stage seriously in the hunt. She was in command, much like Mitt Romney in the presidential debates of 2011.
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