Hillary Clinton is back, in large part because debate preparation matters. And she does it well. The woman who has been dogged by questions about her failure to use separate servers for official and personal purposes and then waiting for two years to turn over her emails to appropriate government authorities was given leave by her toughest opponent to shed her characteristic appearance of entitlement, untrustworthiness, and sneakiness. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the darling of the far left and possible winner in the early states, said, “The people of this country are tired of hearing about your damn emails. Let’s talk about the real issues.”
Give him an A for civility, and a D for political strategy. Had he equally prepared for the debate, he could have pivoted and pointed to the “real” issues that divide them, including something like “the need to restrict the power of obscenely paid CEO’s and their super PACS, on which you depend.” Unlike the GOP debate, being authentic didn’t trump being prepared.
The highly partisan crowd at the debate in Las Vegas and in focus groups loved his email remark. Independent voters probably still see her handling of the emails as a reflection on her character, and the lack of trust engendered won’t go away in one night’s performance.
But the five candidates did talk about issues and, in so doing, showed what civil discourse is all about. Oh my, you mean you can hold a candidate debate and not spew venom, launch ad hominen attacks, be anti-immigrant, misogynistic, racist, narcissistic and more?
In the process, Clinton showed herself to be equally at ease in discussing policy matters as in reframing her positions, several of which have changed over the years. She was very comfortable in the format and in her own skin. Smooth, confident, experienced, smart and, yes, presidential.
Thanks to failed Speaker-candidate Kevin McCarthy, Clinton can now point to the smoking gun of Republican intentions to use the Benghazi issue to undermine her candidacy. The upcoming Benghazi hearing, one in a long stream of such hearings, will probably not do her any more damage, unless the FBI investigation uncovers something more serious. So right now she seems to be the strong candidate she was poised to be when she originally announced her intention to run.
All of the candidates made misstatements of fact, according to factcheck.org, even Bernie Sanders. But Sanders stands out as the most authentic and passionate of the Democrats. Still, his back was to the wall on gun control, though he managed to rationalize his “rural” sensibility with a tap dance worthy of Hillary on other issues (read: TPP or Trans Pacific Pact, which she clearly supported before she opposed it).
Perhaps the most telling response from Sanders was his defense of being a Democratic Socialist, and a non-supporter of capitalism. His admiration of the Democratic Socialist model of Denmark and Sweden was unequivocal, notwithstanding the differences in the size and makeup of their economies and the fact he ignored that they have recently curtailed some benefits due to burgeoning costs. One can only marvel at what the price tag would be of all of Sanders’ programs were he actually to get them through Congress.
Hillary’s support of capitalism and her general-election homage to American exceptionalism were better reasoned and more balanced: capitalism is essential to small businesses at the heart of the economy, and, when it comes to mega business, we simply have to save capitalism from itself (and its excesses).
Beside his email defense, Sanders got off some of the most memorable lines, as in “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates Congress.” He was most effective in his full-throated attack on income inequities in the United States, despite his distortion of where the U.S. ranks on income inequality and minority unemployment.
As for the other three candidates – Lincoln Chaffee, Jim Webb and Martin O’Malley – a National Public Radio account of the event said it all. The three, said the report, “were also on the stage.” Chaffee (described by one commentator as “having the gravitas of a confused ferret”) and Webb should go away immediately. O’Malley, who seems to have been auditioning for Vice President, might have earned the right to participate in another debate.
Given Hillary’s strong performance in this debate and alternative Bernie Sanders’ ever-growing strength, it’s harder to make a case that Joe Biden should get into the race. (Biden himself said all the folks on stage “did well.”) The Vice President is well loved. There’s little doubt he’s prepared to be President. But time is running out, and the rationale for a Biden candidacy is becoming less and less clear. More’s the pity.
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