JOHN CASSIDY | Hillary Clinton Wins Big in Vegas

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 8.27.05 PMOCTOBER 14, 2015

Since Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was held in a Las Vegas hotel, let’s start with the money question: Who won and who lost?

Undoubtedly, Hillary Clinton was the biggest winner, partly because she was playing for the highest stakes. She flew into Nevada as a wounded favorite, whose stumbling performance during the past six months, much of it provoked by the issue of her personal e-mail server, had left many Democrats wondering whether she could get it together in time to win a nomination that was supposed to have been hers for the taking, let alone to win the general election. If she had come across as tetchy and defensive, as she has so often this year, or if she had committed an embarrassing verbal gaffe, the pressure on her would have increased still further, and the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden entering the race would have gone up.

Instead, Clinton delivered a performance that no doubt reminded establishment Democrats why they had rallied behind her in the first place, and reminded Republicans why she could prove to be a most formidable opponent come November, 2016. Sharp, personable, and assured, she batted off an early question from the moderator, Anderson Cooper, about her flip-flops on various issues, breezed through most of the subsequent exchanges, and received a big assist from her closest rival, Bernie Sanders, who, in perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening, declared, 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.

Those comments earned the Vermont senator a warm handshake from Clinton and the biggest cheer of the night from a Democratic audience that was all too willing to believe her claim that the Republicans’ pursuit of the e-mail matter is a political vendetta. Even Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who in August said that the Republicans had raised legitimate issues about the e-mails, backed off, saying that he, too, was delighted to be discussing other issues.

Clinton, of course, would have been more than happy to talk about issues all night. As it became clear that none of the other candidates was going to take her down, she turned her fire on the Republicans, portraying them as dangerous extremists and saying, “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.” That line earned Clinton her biggest cheers of the night.

The horse race apart, it was a substantive debate, with the candidates going into a level of detail that was rarely broached in the first two Republican debates. (Of course, there were many more candidates on stage at those events.) The matters raised ran the gamut, covering gun control, Syria, climate change, Black Lives Matter, Wall Street regulation, college funding, and paid leave for workers. On many of these issues, Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley showed themselves to be in general agreement about what was needed, but also, in some cases, divided on how to achieve their shared goals.

That much we knew going in. Still, it was instructive to watch Sanders say, in response to a question from Cooper about whether he considers himself a capitalist, “Do I consider myself part of the casino-capitalist process, by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.” And it was equally instructive, moments later, when Clinton said, “Well, let me just follow up on that, Anderson, because, when I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.”

On foreign policy, too, the differences between the two front-runners came through clearly, despite the respectful attitude they adopted toward each other. Defending the Obama Administration’s decision to provide military assistance to the Libyan rebels seeking to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, Clinton described it as “smart power at its best.” Unlike Jim Webb, the former senator from Virginia, Sanders didn’t criticize the Libya decision, but he did express skepticism about U.S. military interventions generally, describing the Iraq invasion, which Clinton voted for, as “the worst foreign-policy blunder in the history of this country.” He also said that he opposed the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea that Clinton has supported.

All in all, the seventy-four-year-old senator from Vermont gave a good account of himself. In one sense, indeed, he made history. Not since Eugene Debs has a self-avowed socialist made such an impression in a Presidential race, in terms of the language he has invoked, the support he has garnered, and the impact his rise has had on the other candidates. Sanders’s Brooklyn accent became more pronounced as the night went on, as he railed against the “oligawky” and denied having left anyone at the “altuh.” (The latter statement was in reference to his refusal to support a 2007 immigration bill.) Afterward, he said that he wished he’d had more time to talk about rising inequality and the challenges it presents to democracy. In reality, though, he got his message through. “Here is the truth that very few candidates will say,” he said in his closing statement. “Nobody up here—certainly no Republican—can address the major crises facing our country unless millions of people begin to stand up to the billionaire class that has so much power over our economy and our political life.”

Of the second-string contenders, O’Malley fared by far the best. An articulate policy wonk, he held his own while debating the issues, and delivered the strongest closing statement, saying to those Americans who have become disillusioned about politics, “Talk to our young people under thirty, because you’ll never find among them people that want to bash immigrants or people that want to deny rights to gay couples. That tells me we are moving to a more connected, generous, and compassionate place, and we need to speak to the goodness within our country.”

By contrast, Webb and Lincoln Chafee, the former senator from Rhode Island, both looked and sounded terribly out of place. Webb started out by becoming possibly the first Democratic candidate in recent memory to boast of his service in the Reagan Administration (he worked in the Pentagon). Thereafter, he spent a lot of time grouching about how little time he was being allotted. Chafee stumbled badly in trying to explain why he voted, in 1999, to repeal the Glass–Steagall Act, which separated commercial banking from investment banking. Neither man looked like he would be around for long, though Webb did get off one good line: “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come. And I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.”

Clinton didn’t have the passion of Sanders or the poetry of O’Malley’s sign-off, but she had something else: the self-confidence and killer instinct of a politician who has been down this route before. Early on, before Sanders helped her out with his comment about her e-mails, she stuck it to him in his most vulnerable area: his record on gun control. She pointed out that he voted five times against the Brady Bill, which required a federal background check and a five-day waiting period for gun purchases. She also ridiculed his answer to a question from Cooper about why he had supported an immunity provision for the manufacturers of guns used to commit violent crimes. “It wasn’t that complicated to me,” Clinton said, after Sanders called the bill a complicated one. “It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity.”

The Democratic front-runner also demonstrated the hawkish streak that infuriates some progressives and sometimes earns her grudging respect from Republicans. Asked about Edward Snowden, she repeated the discredited argument that he could have invoked whistle-blower status, and said that he had stolen a lot of information that had fallen into enemy hands. “So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music,” she concluded. (Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush, tweeted, “Good for Hillary on Snowden.”)

In her closing statement, Clinton said that she wanted to get back to “the basic bargain I was raised with: if you work hard and you do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead.” That, of course, is an entirely familiar Democratic trope. When Bill Clinton was running for President, it was dubbed the “New Covenant.” President Obama often expressed it in terms of rewarding “hardworking folks” who “play by the rules.” In this case, though, familiarity is unlikely to breed contempt—at least among the moderate and loyal Democrats whom Clinton needs to support her. Bill Clinton and President Obama won four elections between them. For one night, at least, Hillary Clinton gave Democrats reason to believe that she might be ready to follow their example.