There’s no way to definitively win a debate, short of your opponents imploding or being able to kill them yourself (and if that last were a real option, you could be sure that Jim Webb would consider trying it). All debate wins come down to some form of managed expectations: Campaigns hint to reporters what their goals are, topically; reporters lecture campaigns on what those goals should be; and the candidate who more effectively conveys the most things in the overlap of that Venn diagram then gets called the winner until the next week’s polls.
But if you need to pick a winner from Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton will do.
It probably helps that most people watching at home haven’t heard a news report about Hillary Clinton for weeks or months that wasn’t outrage theatre about her personal email server or outrage theatre about how she seems too much or not enough like Donna Reed /Gloria Steinem/ Alicia Florrick. All that Hillary had to do was show up and sound intelligent on topics that exist outside a Beltway thinkpiece and 90 per cent of the unbearable hassle of the Hillary conversation would dissipate.
She surpassed that expectation, and so the evening was lively. It made politics, temporarily, feel like something done by people who read actual books instead of talking points.
Things did not start out terribly auspiciously, though. Anderson Cooper’s initial questions to every candidate were of the politically permissible ‘tell us why you’re not wasting everyone’s damn time’, ‘you fraud mode’, and Hillary’s question ended up being more about her evolution on the Trans-Pacific Partnership than her alleged political opportunism in general. Her explanation was, frankly, a load of bull, and she has a history of political opportunism about trade pacts, but her ultimate response was probably the smartest take possible under the circumstances: “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
It was a good answer for Hillary — or for anyone who’s spent two decades threading the poles of the ambitious and the possible. Nobody who really cares about the TPP is liable to enjoy her answer, but those people (mostly Beltway insiders and labour union lobbyists) are savvy enough respect it.
Statements as frank as Hillary’s are often a tough sell, especially given a disingenuous media. Only the incredibly naive get mad when politicians admit that a long shadow falls between the idea and the reality, but the media tend to beat up candidates who run on a “realist” platform for “failing to inspire” — as if opting not to break your constituency’s hearts by talking to them like they’re adults instead of waiting for the real world to squash them when the campaign ends constitutes some abdication of responsibility.
Hillary also pounced on the issue of gun control, effectively moving to Bernie Sanders’ left on perhaps the only issue she can: “It’s time for our country to stand up to the NRA [National Rifle Association]”, she said, after hammering Sanders on his failure to support the Brady Bill on multiple occasions. It’s one of the few areas in which Sanders can’t stake out a position as The Last Honest Man in Politics, as he’s clearly spent years reining in what would seem to be a knee-jerk liberal position on gun control to account for his position as a representative of a very rural state. Even this little allows Hillary to muddy the true believer vs jaded politico narrative that Sanders’ supporters enjoy spouting. If it inspires nothing else, his grudging support for gun rights suggests that everyone is a little compromised.
And Hillary got a powerful ovation for challenging the Republican Party’s small-government orthodoxy, stating: “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and [attacking] Planned Parenthood.” It was a good line, passionately delivered — and, even if you dismiss identity politics, it was really effective. There probably would not be many essential political differences on women’s rights issues between a Sanders presidency or a Clinton presidency, but it’s just never going to be as moving coming from him as it does from the first credible woman presidential candidate.
There were, inevitably, some down moments for Clinton. Describing the West’s Libyan intervention as “smart power at its best” seems to define intelligent use of power down to “we killed things but without soldiers on the ground”. Later, Hillary defended her record on Wall Street by explaining that she’d gone to Wall Street and talking sternly: “I basically said, ‘Cut it out, quick foreclosing on homes. Quit engaging in speculative behaviour.’” As a regulatory intervention, that is the manifestation of the Robin Williams joke about what English police must have to do since they don’t carry firearms (“Stop! ...or I’ll say ‘stop’ again!”). Later, she made the baseless suggestion that Edward Snowden “stole very important information that has fallen into the wrong hands” while blaming him for not coming forward as a whistleblower, despite the Obama administration’s enthusiasm for prosecuting whistleblowers.
All those shortcomings will be addressed by Bernie Sanders’ surrogates and fans (on Reddit especially) and by O’Malley’s campaign — but they didn’t detract from, and probably added to, her perceived win. (Snowden’s hardly a universally popular figure in the Beltway press corps.)
But the funniest and by far the most relatable Hillary comment of the night was the simplest and it wasn’t about policy. While it might have been planned for, it still worked and reminded people that Hillary Clinton can be really good at politics. Maybe it made even the most churlish among us point at the screen and say, “That woman, just then — I get her.”
On the subject of Hillary’s emails — which Sanders used to score huge mutual points and thunderous applause by stating that the American people were sick of hearing about the emails instead of the issues — Lincoln Chafee stuck to his position that they were a fair topic for discussion because, “There’s an issue of American credibility there” and “I think we need somebody who has the best ethical standards to be our next president”.
When asked by Anderson Cooper whether she wanted to respond, Hillary simply said, “No”. Trey Gowdy probably impotently hurled a tub of styling wax at his television and wept one manly tear, but everyone else laughed, whether out of relief or not.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd