Tuesday night’s first Democratic debate in Las Vegas served as an important reminder that politics is hard, running for president is the hardest thing to do in politics, and Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, is pretty good at politics.
It is also a reminder to be wary of your neighborhood pundit. Before the debate, I wrote that Clinton would probably play it close to the vest, focus her attention on Republicans, and try to avoid getting into it with her Democratic rivals. Instead, Clinton went for the jugular early and often — and showed why she remains the heavy favorite to win the Democratic nomination and the odds-on favorite to be the next president.
Though Clinton has been getting hit from the left by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the one issue on which she’s tried to outflank him is guns — and when given the opportunity to pounce she didn’t hesitate. Asked if she thought Sanders was “tough enough” on guns, she sternly replied “no” and then launched an unexpectedly harsh attack against him, noting that he had voted against the Brady Bill five times.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has been even tougher on gun control than Clinton, joined in and lambasted Sanders for his past support of legislation shielding gunmakers from lawsuits.
The double-barreled attack left Sanders woozy and flailing, and set the tone for the rest of the evening.
It wasn’t just Sanders who got it from Clinton. When O’Malley offered veiled criticism of her support for the war in Iraq she practically knee-capped him on stage by pointing out how nice it was that he had endorsed her for president in 2008. Indeed, after getting beat up on Iraq, she offered a surprisingly good defense — namely that while she and President Obama disagreed about the war in 2008, he trusted her judgment enough to make her secretary of state after he was elected.
This was a top-notch debate performance. Clinton looked relaxed and confident. When faced with tough questions, she offered what were clearly well-practiced bits of deflection. For example, when pushed on the e-mail “scandal” still plaguing her campaign, she pivoted to an attack on the House Benghazi investigation and House majority leader Kevin McCarthy’s comments that the inquiry is solely focused on hurting her politically.
To be sure, what really helped Clinton was that she was facing off against a set of rivals who had no real business being on stage with her. Jim Webb, who joked about killing an enemy solider in Vietnam, and Lincoln Chaffee, who defended his vote repealing the Glass-Steagal Act by bizarrely saying that he’d just arrived in the Senate and his father had recently passed away, embarrassed themselves and the debate organizers. Hopefully neither will be invited back for the next debate.
O’Malley was fine, but hardly memorable. His hyper-earnestness and emotional appeals are grating, and he looks like he’s playing JV politics against the varsity team. One can imagine that his race for the vice presidential nod will continue.
Sanders acquitted himself far better, but most striking about his performance is that he genuinely appears uncomfortable talking about anything other than income inequality (a topic on which he’s quite good). He looked lost on foreign policy and the gun question was the definition of political spinelessness, particularly from a politician who likes to run around talking about starting a political “revolution.”
Against this group, Clinton couldn’t help but shine. Then again, it’s not as if any of the potential GOP candidates offer much competition either. Clinton may not be a politician on par with her husband or the man who bested her for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but as she showed Tuesday night she is, almost certainly, the best of the bunch running – and by a wide margin.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.