For all the talk about Hillary Clinton’s weakness as a candidate, Tuesday’s Democratic debate demonstrated that things could be worse. Hillary Clinton, with more than 25 presidential debates under her belt from the last cycle, was clearly the most assured and prepared. She was the best of the field, which is a bit like saying “the best Octoberfest in Orlando.” It’s a distinction, but not much of one.
Nonetheless, Clinton was calmer, more self-assured and facile than anyone else up there. She was also very gifted at bluster and bombast, knowing when and how to pivot to non sequiturs about Planned Parenthood and wave other bloody shirts that would arouse the applause from the audience and scare off the moderators from their follow-up questions.
Former senator Jim Webb was by far the most politically intriguing character on the stage, but he was mostly that — a character. He was fighting a last-gasp battle for a party that no longer exists. His answers on foreign policy, affirmative action, and immigration demonstrated that he has actually thought through his positions rather focus-grouped them.
Bernie Sanders spent most of the evening shouting. His fans no doubt liked what they heard, but he didn’t do what he had to do to convince unpersuaded Democrats and donors that he could be a successful nominee. I can’t decide if it was shrewdness, naiveté, or something closer to cowardice that drove Sanders to bequeath unto Hillary the gift of saying, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!” The calculation probably involved all three motivations: He will raise a lot of money from Democrats who hate Republicans more than they dislike Hillary. He honestly thinks that presidential campaigns are won with a Ron Paul-like focus on the issues, as he defines them. And, he’s simply afraid to go for the jugular.
The most memorable moment was probably when Lincoln Chafee, who began the evening by saying he’s a “block of granite on the issues,” slowly turned to mud as he had to explain some of his more problematic votes by virtue of the fact that he’d just gotten to the Senate when he made those mistakes. It was the Rick Perry “oops” moment of the night. Though that’s unfair to Perry. No one watching at home said, “Well, that ruined Lincoln Chaffee’s chances of being president.” That would be like saying Robert Reich’s sprained ankle ruined his chances of making the NBA all-star team. Still, it was painful to watch.
Oh, and Martin O’Malley was on the stage, too.