It took until nearly the end of the first Democratic presidential debate for anyone to make the point that will define the general election—and it came from the candidate who outperformed everyone else.
“We cannot afford a Republican to succeed Barack Obama as president of the United States,” Hillary Clinton said.
In its entirety, the debate underlined key ideological and strategic differences between the candidates—particularly the leading candidates, Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But at a more ostensible level, it provided Clinton the first opportunity she’s had in months to remind nervous supporters why they assumed she’s had a lock on the nomination all along, and served as a reminder that a Democratic president in 2017 won’t first and foremost be a font of liberal reform, but a bulwark against a conservative counterrevolution against the Obama era. That the combined strategic acumen in Democratic politics won’t be a match for the Republican Party's chokehold on the legislature.
A major sub-theme of the 2016 presidential primary has been the Democratic Party’s reluctance, seemingly on behalf of Clinton, to sponsor more than a handful of primary debates.
The first debate revealed how defensive and unthinking that strategy was.
During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s facility in the primary debates stood in immense contrast to her stiffness behind teleprompters and press conference lecterns. The same contrast is evident in this campaign, with the important caveat that this time, she isn’t running against a half dozen polished debaters. If the Democratic Party, and the Clinton campaign, had reflected in a clear-eyed way on her last campaign, they would have started the debate series over the summer, and scheduled at least a dozen of them.
Clinton outshone her rivals on Tuesday night in Las Vegas in several different ways. Two Democratic candidates—Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee—were frankly painful to watch, like single-A ball players whiffing against a big league power pitcher.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley played an interesting and substantive role. He delivered persuasive moral arguments for progressive policy, and provided a strong reminder that just a few weeks ago, eleven Republicans were angling to be the most reactionary and insensitive candidate on their own debate stage. But he frequently offered up the kind of canned, and over-mannered answers we were primed to expect from Clinton.
Sanders was the only candidate who came close to matching Clinton’s ease and enthusiasm, but he lacked the kind of rhetorical quickness that at one point allowed Clinton to gain cover for her own support for the Iraq war from Barack Obama’s opposition to it. "I recall very well being on a debate stage about 25 times with then-Senator Obama debating this issue,” Clinton said. “After the election, he asked me to be secretary of state. He valued my judgment. I spent a lot of time with him in the situation room going over some very difficult issues.”
But the biggest contrast on offer wasn’t among Democrats, but between Democrats and Republicans, and here the debate underlined the basic tension at the heart of the Democratic campaign.
Clinton staked out the sweet spot between aspirational and pragmatic politics, when she dubbed herself “a progressive, but...a progressive who likes to get things done.” Yet it was Sanders, the most radical candidate, who expressed the most pragmatic—and arguably too pragmatic—sentiment of the evening. Defending his past heresies on gun control, Sanders said:
All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing. I believe that there is a consensus in this country. A consensus has said we need to strengthen and expand instant background checks, do away with this gun show loophole, that we have to address the issue of mental health, that we have to deal with the strawman purchasing issue, and that when we develop that consensus, we can finally, finally do something to address this issue.
On a rote political level, it isn’t a surprise that on the one issue where Sanders’s left flank is vulnerable, he alighted from lofty ideals into the realm of the possible. But on another level it gives the whole game away. Very few of the issues discussed on stage, including points of consensus among Democrats like paid family leave, are going to come easily. Many of them won’t happen at all. The candidates spent depressingly little time explaining how they’ll grapple with that kind of obstruction, apart from striving for consensus. But Clinton more than the others seemed to grasp the importance of reminding the audience that the obstacles a Democratic president will face will be a small price to pay for not handing all three branches of government over to the right.