Going into the Democrats’ first presidential debate Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton seems to have banked on one thing: that far fewer Americans would be watching than watched the Republican debates in August and September.
That assumption proved correct. Early Nielsen ratings indicate that 13 million viewers tuned in. That’s more than the previous Democratic record of 11 million. But it’s not much more than half the 23 and 24 million who watched the Republican debates.
Clinton, in what National Journal’s Ron Fournier called “a performance that was as dishonest as it was impressive,” clearly spoke persuasively to that heavily Democratic audience. With a timely assist, it should be added, from the one rival with poll numbers high enough to have qualified him for prime time if were a Republican: Bernie Sanders. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said. “Me, too! Me, too!” Clinton replied. The highly partisan crowd roared and the two candidates shook hands. The “damn emails” still trouble all Republicans and most Independents, but Democrats don’t like dissent and relished Clinton’s repeated attacks on Republicans.
Clinton was careful also not to leave much room between her 2008 vanquisher and 2009-2013 boss, Barack Obama. On foreign policy, she noted that “he valued my judgment and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.” Not much room left for Joe Biden, reportedly watching the debate from the Vice President’s house.
On Libya, he “made the right decision at the time.” She noted her role in advising Obama on the “tough decision” he had to make about Osama bin Laden — on which Biden gave contrary advice. On Syria, she applauded the administration for being “engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict.”
In another forum those statements would be subject to challenge. Most voters don’t believe the Osama decision was tough. It’s hard to argue their handling of the Libya crisis has held up over time. It’s pathetic to plead with the Russians, who are bombing our allies and blocking the “no-fly” zone that Clinton backs, to change their course. Overall polls give Obama negative marks on foreign policy.
But almost all Democratic voters have favorable feelings toward both Obama and Clinton. So Clinton’s rivals mostly drew back from attacking her. The rare dissent on policy — notably Jim Webb’s succinct statement opposing the Iran nuclear deal — was met with silence from the other candidates, the questioners and the audience. The fact that most voters oppose the deal was ignored.
Focus group participants took a different view of the debate from almost all pundits, who scored it as a victory for Clinton. Democrats with favorable feelings toward Clinton are indeed flirting with the Sanders candidacy. Left-wing Democrats, like right-wing Republicans, are enchanted by candidates who dare to take stands they perceive as unpopular with voters generally.
But such candidates don’t get nominated. Sanders gamely tried to appeal to blacks, who make up 20 to 25 percent of Democratic primary voters, by decrying the nation’s high prison populations and calling (as Clinton and many Republicans have) for changes in criminal sentencing. He, like all except Webb, embraced the “black lives matter” slogan without regard for the actual Black Lives Matter platform.
But that seems unlikely to move black voters away from the wife of the man once hailed as the first black president and the first secretary of state for the man who actually fits that description.
Sanders also risked turning off some Democrats by repeatedly criticizing the United States for lacking welfare state provisions like those in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Clinton responded with an eye on the general election as well as the primaries. “But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”
The Democrats’ talk about economic inequities might convince a man from Mars that we’re in the seventh year of a reactionary Republican presidency. You didn’t hear much praise of the signal Obama achievements, Obamacare and the Iran deal. And candidates’ policies to reduce inequality — higher minimum wage, paid family leave — seem pathetically inadequate beside the candidates’ dire diagnoses.
The debate left little doubt about who the nominee will be, or about her presentational skills when not faced with opposition. But as Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle writes, “Democrats wasted their chance to test Clinton.”