Democratic debate I: Hillary made it look easy

     Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, (left), speaks as Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP Photo)

    Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, (left), speaks as Hillary Rodham Clinton looks on during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP Photo)

    By the time Hillary Clinton finished acing the Democratic debate, Joe “Hamlet” Biden surely said to himself, “You know who the biggest loser was tonight? Me.”

    Because there’s no opening for the dithering veep, no vacuum that needs filling.

    In just two hours, Hillary reminded grassroots Democrats – the only voters that count right now, this being the primary season – that nothing succeeds like experience. Yeah, she’s been dogged by the email baggage, and, yeah, she has tweaked and shifted positions on a few key issues. But when the bell rang last night, she was crisp, confident, relaxed, and suffused with good cheer. She hit all her intended themes with repeated precision (her focus on the middle class, her partnership with President Obama, her gender). Lest we forget, she had debated more than two dozen times in 2007 and 2008 – against a far broader, more talented field of rivals – and it showed.

    Bernie Sanders? He was fine whenever he was on offense, bellowing his progressive convictions. But when he had to play defense, his A game was gone. He couldn’t coherently explain why he, as a House member, had voted five times to oppose the Brady background-check gun bill (Hillary nailed him for that); or why he had voted, as a senator, to immunize the gun manufacturers from citizen lawsuits (Hillary nailed him for that, too). He’s supposedly the “outsider” in this race, but moments like those reminded me that Bernie has been inside the congressional system for the last 25 years.

    And his best moment in the debate – the video clip of the night – was a gift to Hillary: “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 e-mails….Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”

    Could Hillary have possibly said it better? She simply said, “Thank you, Bernie!”

    As for the rest of the field, meh. Martin O’Malley, the ex-Maryland governor, praised Hillary a bunch of times, apparently auditioning for running mate. Jim Webb, the ex-Marine and ex-Virginia senator, spent most of his time griping that he wasn’t getting enough time (which was amusing, given that he vanishes from the campaign trail for months at a time); most memorably, he boasted of killing the Vietnamese commie who had wounded him with a grenade (he was Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction). And the last guy on stage, ex-Rhode Island senator Lincoln (“I’ve had no scandals!”) Chafee, looked like he had smoked reefer and discovered that the debate was messing with his buzz.

    The bottom line: Hillary had the wind at her back, and she set sail across open water. None of her rivals dared to launch sustained attacks, because they well know that despite her various ’15 woes, she’s still hugely popular with the party base. On the eve of the debate, the ABC News-Washington Post poll reported that 79 percent of grassroots Democrats view her favorably; Bernie trailed in that key metric by 32 points. No way he would’ve wanted to risk a backlash.

    Just as importantly: Obama remains broadly popular among Democrats. Which is why Hillary, at virtually every turn, invoked his name and her Obama administration tenure. When she was asked to defend her judgment (because that pesky Iraq war vote had surfaced again), she reminded everyone that President-Elect Obama “asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment.” When asked about helping minorities, she said, “I think President Obama has been a great moral leader.” When asked about climate change, she said, “President Obama and I crashed a meeting with the Chinese and got them to sign up to the first international agreement to combat climate change that they’d ever joined.” (Hillary told this anecdote twice.)

    Just as importantly: She gave grassroots Democrats a flavor of how she’d rake the opposition during the autumn ’16 campaign. On immigration, “there is such a difference between everything you’re hearing here on this stage, and what we hear from the Republicans – demonizing hard-working immigrants.” Plus, “if you look at the Republicans versus Democrats when it comes to economic policy, there is no comparison. The economy does better when you have a Democrat in the White House.” (That is somewhat overstated, but a ’14 paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson did make that connection.)

    And when she was asked to defend the cost of newly proposed federal programs, like mandated family leave, she said: “Well, look, you know, when people say that – it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care.’ They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it….We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that,’  except for what they want to impose on the American people.”

    Perhaps that argument won’t play with independent voters a year from now. But first things first. The goal is to win the nomination, and hammering the GOP for its Planned Parenthood demagoguery is smart politics. Ditto her repeated emphasis on rebuilding the beleaguered middle class. (Care to guess how many times the Republicans uttered the phrase “middle class” during their nearly three-hour September debate? Three times. You can look it up.)

    Speaking of the Republicans: How great it was not to hear those debators. What a welcome change of pace. The Democratic debators refused to spew lies about Planned Parenthood, or insist that vaccines cause autuism, or make sexist remarks about women’s faces, or engage in magical thinking about climate change, or worship Kim Davis, or vow to shred the Iran nuke deal, or rebuke German Jews for failing to arm themselves against Hitler, or defend a failed president who marched us into the wrong war at a cost of thousands dead and a trillion bucks. So perhaps the real winner last night was the American citizenry.

    As for the GOP’s reaction, I did spy a tweet from a conservative operative who boasted that, based on what he saw, Marco Rubio or Carly Fiorina would wipe the floor with Hillary. To that, I can only say this: Life inside the bubble deprives the mind of oxygen.

    ——-

    I had much more to say this morning on WHYY’s Radio Times, as evidenced by listening to it.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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