Even Hillary Clinton’s most ardent supporters would concede the last few months have not gone according to plan. Relentless media criticism, coupled with a surge of excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders and his progressive agenda, have weakened Clinton’s standing as the campaign has unfolded.
But just as importantly, it’s shaken Democrats’ confidence. To be sure, Democratic insiders and loyalists are an easily panicked bunch, but in recent months, certainty over the strength of Clinton’s candidacy evolved into doubt – a dynamic that created a vulnerability that has nearly lured Vice President Biden into the race.
With this in mind, Hillary Clinton not only dominated last night’s debate in Las Vegas, it arguably changed the direction of the race.
Going into last night, the former Secretary of State was confronted with headwinds: Clinton was perceived as the faltering frontrunner, burdened by a “scandal” no one can identify. Over the course of two impressive hours, however, Clinton emerged as a sure-footed, quick-witted, presidential-level powerhouse.
There’s simply no credible way Biden or any of his boosters watched the debate and saw an opportunity for the V.P. to seize. For that matter, Republican officials, increasingly confident about their general-election odds, received a timely reminder of just how formidable Clinton really is.
The intra-party argument over debates also took a turn last night. For months, a variety of Democratic insiders and candidates have complained that the DNC has scheduled too few debates, probably in the hopes of shielding the frontrunner. Last night turned the whole argument on its head – Clinton is easily the best debater, in either party, running in this cycle.
I was generally sympathetic to the Clinton campaign’s strategy – likely nominees always want fewer debates – but if I were her campaign manager, I’d start exploring the possibility of scheduling as many of these events as humanly possible. A one-debate-per-day plan through the fall of 2016 would probably be beneficial.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how last night could have gone much better for Clinton. She effectively went on the offensive over guns; she adeptly used President Obama to inoculate herself against criticism of her 2002 Iraq vote; she crushed a question about big government by slamming Republicans on reproductive rights; and she even turned a comment about a bathroom break into a charming moment.
And what of the emails? Clinton knew the question was coming, and she took full advantage of the opportunity Republicans created for her.
“I’ve taken responsibility for it. I did say it was a mistake. What I did was allowed by the State Department, but it wasn’t the best choice. And I have been as transparent as I know to be, turning over 55,000 pages of my e-mails, asking that they be made public. And you’re right. I am going to be testifying. I’ve been asking to testify for some time and to do it in public, which was not originally agreed to.“But let’s just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that’s what they have attempted to do.“I am still standing.”
As effective as this was, moments later, Bernie Sanders brought down the house with this memorable line: “Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
The entire “controversy,” such as it was, unraveled before our eyes into a manufactured, partisan, faux-scandal.
As for the bigger picture, Republicans must have been discouraged by Clinton’s strong showing, but I hope they also noticed how much better last night’s debate was than anything the GOP candidates have shown in their events. On every front, the exchanges in Las Vegas showed Democratic candidates better prepared, more substantive, and more knowledgeable than their far-right counterparts.
During the debate, Politico’s Glenn Thrush noted on Twitter, “The level of discourse - nuance of discussion – compared to the GOP debates? Not even close.” The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel added soon after, “[W]atching this debate after slogging through all the Trump debates is like moving from kindergarten into grad school.”
Hillary Clinton won big last night. Republicans lost.