Shadow Government

Did Hillary Clinton Rise Above the Rest in the First Democratic Debate?

This was the moment when the former secretary of state proved she has the goods to be the nominee.

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In contrast to the Republican melee, the Democratic party has a long-standing front-runner, so the purpose of the debate among candidates was to gauge how durable Clinton will be under pressure. This was other candidates’ chance to open some space for consideration of their candidacies — at which they singularly failed.

Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. She showed her strengths: she’s smart, tough, doesn’t shy away from explaining complex subjects. She skated circles around every other candidate. O’Malley kept his kid gloves on and gently suggested new leadership is needed, but Clinton’s performance showed how much he’d have to up his game to play at her level. When directly asked whether Clinton was too quick to advocate the use of force, he again demurred from landing a blow. Chaffee also pulled his punches when confronted about his campaign trail statements that Clinton’s Iraq war vote disqualifies her on the basis of judgment — even Clinton’s pathetic appeal to masculine authority (“Barack Obama picked me as his secretary of state”) sounded better than Chafee’s challenge. Nobody else even attempted to bruise her. Joe Biden is probably too late now; twitter was flat out won by Travon Free with a picture of a blonde, bearded, bespectacled, heavy-set man in the debate crowd, presumed to be Biden in disguise, looking disconcerted.

Clinton had to rely on Sanders to cover her on the email scandal, saying people were tired of hearing about it — and she laughed genuinely, like she could hardly believe her good fortune. Her opponents let her get away with framing the entirety of the email issue as the Congressional Benghazi hearings, conveniently ignoring the FBI investigation and concerns from the CIA and State Department inspectors general.

None of the other candidates were gunned up to challenge her assertion that Russia was fine when Medvedev was in charge, or question why the Obama administration remained committed to its “reset” policy long after Putin was obviously running Russia and our adversary. Nobody scoffed when she revealed that the Chinese had lied to President Obama about leaving the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Nobody pressed her to explain how she would get Russia to cooperate in Syria or any other the other vacuous policy platitudes. Nobody challenged her ludicrous notion that the intervention in Libya was “smart power at its best,” or how, if that were true, Libya has descended into violent chaos.

I was struck at the similarities between Clinton and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, especially when Clinton launched her soliloquy on the balance of risk in national security decisions. Both Kasich and Clinton would probably be decent presidents. Both are substantive and sanctimonious; they both run the risk of becoming tiresome to listen to.

Sanders and Chafee are still litigating the Iraq war, which Clinton bore with equanimity, suggesting that Democratic voters have moved on. Sanders made a decent defense of himself when challenged about what uses of military force he would support, saying he had supported the Kosovo intervention and the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But it mostly served to emphasize the difference in experience, because it brought to mind the Situation Room pictures of Secretary Clinton with the president while the raid was occurring.

The most substantive exchange among the candidates was about domestic intelligence gathering. Sanders, like President Obama, claimed there are no trade-offs between security and civil liberties — except that he came down with the opposite policy recommendation, that of closing down domestic surveillance. Clinton defended the process, explaining it had judicial oversight before proceeding to trash the Bush administration’s clandestine programs. But at least she admitted there is a difficult balance to be struck between privacy, security, and civil liberties. Chafee, for the second time of the night, explained his vote as following the crowd (an odd position for someone trying to claim they are independent).

On the basis of this debate, Democrats do not think national security is a big issue for the electorate. Nobody expressed concern about the world being a more dangerous place than when President Obama was elected. Nobody distanced themselves from his policies. Nobody mentioned the damage done to our military by sequestration or argued for its repeal. Nobody mentioned the military at all. Veterans were mentioned, but only by Webb and Sanders in lauding their own 2008 legislation. Trade policy was only mentioned in the context of Clinton changing her positions, not substantively engaged. When asked the main national security threat to our country, two of the five said climate change.

Republicans are placing a big bet that voters are uneasy about the rising tide of conflict and chaos in the world, and President Obama’s passivity in the face of national security challenges. If Republicans are right, Democrats are not preparing or positioning their candidate for that contest.

P.S. — Thank you, Anderson Cooper, for pressing Clinton to identify a policy difference when she answered that the difference between her and the president was her being a woman.

P.P.S. — Best line of the night: Jim Webb, “I don’t think the revolution is going to come, and I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this.”

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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