Hillary Clinton Runs the Table in Vegas Debate
Eight years ago, Hillary Clinton took part in 25 Democratic debates or forums in her epic, historic, ultimately doomstruck battle with Barack Obama for their party’s presidential nomination. And while few in this amnesiac culture remember it clearly—the exception being those who worked for Obama, who recall it all too clearly—she was excellent in all of them. She really only slipped up once: in the October 2007 debate at Drexel University, when she flubbed a question about driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants that popped up at the end of the night, and which cost her dearly. Even so, the fact remains: on 24 other occasions, she pretty much mopped the floor with the field, very much including Obama.
Clinton has many flaws as a candidate, but she also has many assets, and among those are skills, tendencies, and qualities that serve her well in the realm of forensics. Her zeal for policy and encyclopedic grasp of its nuances and details. Her intense focus, her relentless diligence, her penchant for methodical preparation. The sharp analytical bent of her mind. Her capacity to deploy her combativeness to strategic ends. These strengths, like all human strengths, are twinned to weaknesses: a propensity to wade into a thicket of detail, to be too programmatic, to allow her humor and humanity to get lost in the shuffle, at times to condescend. But what her experience on the debate stage—unmatched by any candidate in either party—has given her is the ability to exploit her strengths and subdue her weaknesses as a debater. Or at least that would seem to be the case judging by how she did on Tuesday night at the Wynn Las Vegas.
At the risk of already having buried the lede, let me put it as bluntly as possible: the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 cycle was a complete and utter rout. Knowing that she faced the highest possible expectations, that she would be graded by unforgiving standards, and that as the front-runner she had the most to lose, Clinton turned in a bracing, formidable, approachable, nearly flawless performance that was in almost every respect stronger than any she delivered in 2007-2008. It was, by a wide margin, the best night (or day) of her campaign so far. She didn’t just win or even win decisively. She kicked ass from here to Sunday.
Four exchanges illustrate the nature and extent of Clinton’s dominance in Vegas:
1. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper, right out of the gate, raised a specter that fuels doubt about Clinton: that she is an ideological shape-shifter, moored to nothing but political expedience. “Just for the record,” Cooper asked tartly, “are you a progressive or are you a moderate?” Without missing a beat, Clinton snapped off a line that captured her political philosophy accurately, authentically, and at bumper-sticker length: “I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.”
2. After mocking her chief rival, Bernie Sanders, for his invocation of Denmark as a model for the U.S., Clinton went after him again on the rare topic where Sanders is out of step with the left: gun control. Asked if Sanders had been tough enough on firearms in his career, she replied, “No, not at all”—and then laid into him for voting against the Brady Bill five times and to shield gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits. Sanders had defended the latter vote on the grounds that the bill in question was “large and complicated.”
“I was in the Senate at the same time,” Clinton responded. “It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America—everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that.”
3. When Lincoln Chafee touted his opposition as a senator to the 2002 Iraq war authorization and questioned Clinton’s judgment for voting the other way, she parried with a crisp and clever rejoinder: “I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.”
It was the first time, but by no means the last, that Clinton would invoke Obama. In so doing, she not only yoked herself to a figure enormously popular with the Democratic nominating electorate. She sent one of several subtle messages to the man who wasn’t there—Vice President Joe Biden—that if he decides to enter the race, she will not allow him to seize the mantle readily of the inheritor of Obama's legacy.
4. Somewhat surprisingly, it took Cooper more than 45 minutes to raise the subject of the controversy surrounding Clinton’s private e-mail system. When he did, she was ready with an earnest admission that the system was “a mistake” and that the issues that have been raised around it are “legitimate,” followed by an indictment of the House Benghazi committee as a plainly partisan endeavor. “But tonight,” she went on, “I want to talk not about my e-mails, but about what the American people want from the next president of the United States.” The crowd erupted in applause.
And then, out of nowhere, she received the equivalent of an in-kind political contribution from Sanders. “Let me say something that may not be great politics,” he offered. “But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” At which point Clinton threw her head back, laughed, and exulted, “Thank you! Me, too! Me, too!”
Throwing that lifeline to Clinton was a win for Sanders, too; according to Facebook, it was the “top social moment” of the night. But it was one of the Vermont senator’s few triumphs on the Vegas stage. For much of the night, he was under assault not just by Clinton but Cooper and Martin O’Malley. Sanders had eschewed devoting a great deal of time to debate prep—and it showed. He often seemed unprepared, especially compared to Clinton, and came across frequently as somewhat sheepish, reactive, and exasperated. He was strongest on issues in his wheelhouse, such as Wall Street reform, thundering that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.” But while he chastised Clinton for being “naïve” in her approach to the financial sector, he shied away from the strongest potential shots at her ties to the billionaire class.
Sanders’s staunchest adherents see his refusal to engage in such attacks as a big part of his appeal. Nothing that occurred in Vegas is likely to cost him their support. A few hours after the debate, his campaign issued a press release touting multiple (methodologically absurd) online polls showing that he was the night’s winner, and claiming the campaign had raised $1.3 million in the four hours after the debate.
But for Sanders, the goal of the debate was to begin broadening his appeal, and it was hard to cite a moment or argument that held out that potential. O’Malley, by contrast, did a decent job of introducing himself to an electorate for whom he was, before tonight, almost entirely a mystery. His promotion of his record on gun control was strong, but his refusal to repeat forthrightly to Clinton’s face a criticism he has been making on the stump—that she has historically been too quick to use military force abroad—was weak. Chafee and Jim Webb entered the debate as asterisks and exited as after-thoughts.
All things considered, then, the night could hardly have been better for Clinton: she was on fire, her opponents were not, and while her answers on Keystone, on flip-flopping, and on Wall Street reform were less than perfect, she committed nothing that even her fiercest critics could call a mistake. Eight years ago, Clinton’s error at Drexel marked a turning point: the moment when her unstoppable supertanker of a campaign suddenly found itself with a hole in its hull and the water rushing in. It would be quite an irony if, exactly eight years later, the debate in Vegas—followed next week by her appearance before the Benghazi panel—marked another turning point, in precisely the opposite direction.