LAS VEGAS—Hillary Clinton came into the first Democratic presidential debate as the front-runner, and for perhaps the first time in the campaign, she looked like one. She was commanding on the issues and attacked Republicans in a way that was pleasing to Democrats and deflected the attacks aimed at her. If Joe Biden needed Clinton to falter to create a further appetite for his campaign, her performance seemed to have the opposite effect.
Going into the debate the question was who might go after Clinton. Instead she was first to go on offense, lecturing Bernie Sanders on gun control, saying that he should have known that he was giving immunity to gun manufacturers with his 2005 Senate vote on the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. “It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me,” she said about her own vote, which was on the other side of the issue from Sanders. It was supposed to be Clinton who was on the defensive for her Senate vote—namely her support of the Iraq war—yet she took an early opportunity to roll up the congressional record and bonk Sanders over the head with it.
The gun conversation came early, which meant that for a period of the debate—until Jim Webb came out against the Iran nuclear deal—Sanders was the candidate who had been defined the furthest on the right on an issue. Sanders, who is usually the one who shoots for the stars while leaving pragmatic realities to other contenders, on the gun issue made the case that the realities of representative government meant pro-gun areas were always going to make gun control difficult.
Clinton, who told me on Face the Nation that she had no interest in going negative on Sanders, had clearly done her opposition research on him. “Sen. Sanders,” she said, “you voted against the Brady bill that mandated background checks and a waiting period. You also supported allowing riders to bring guns in checked bags on Amtrak trains. For a decade, you said that holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings is a bad idea. Now, you say you’re reconsidering that. Which is it: Shield the gun companies from lawsuits or not?”
Shortly thereafter, when Sanders spent a few minutes discussing democratic socialism and answering why he doesn’t consider himself a capitalist, Clinton drew another distinction between herself and the Vermont senator, interjecting with a defense of capitalism. “I want to save capitalism from itself,” she said. “It’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history.”
These answers set the tone for a night when Clinton consistently had forward-leaning answers. She was only on her heels briefly as she defended her vote in support of the Iraq war, giving Sanders a chance to describe the invasion as “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of the country.” Even in that moment she had a good retort, using Obama’s hiring her after he’d criticizing her vote as proof that she had good judgment.
But for Clinton the perfect answer came near the end of the debate, when she was asked about paid family leave:
We can design a system and pay for it that does not put the burden on small businesses. ... I remember as a young mother, you know, having a baby wake up who was sick, and I’m supposed to be in court, because I was practicing law. I know what it’s like ... 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. … I know we can afford it, because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done.
Clinton has styled herself as a fighter, and that’s what she demonstrated throughout the night, but this answer showed how nimble and effective she can be in this stance. She articulated her position, shared a little biography, and demonstrated her mastery of the issues (referring confidently to California’s paid family leave law) before making a policy point, then issued a broad and crowd-pleasing attack on Republicans that also allowed her to pivot to taking a stand for abortion rights. She checked a lot of boxes in that answer.
The other big challenge for Clinton was whether she would exacerbate her big weakness on the issue of trustworthiness. In the most recent CBS poll, 61 percent of general election voters did not think Clinton was honest and trustworthy. The pressure points here were her flip-flop on trade and her defense of her email server.
Clinton didn’t do too well on the flip-flopping issue, saying, “Well, you know, everybody on this stage has changed a position or two. We’ve been around a cumulative quite some period of time.” You’re likely to see that in a Republican ad if she wins the nomination. It makes light of position-changing and reminds people she’s not a fresh face.
But the great moment for Clinton came thanks to Bernie Sanders. Asked about her emails, she gave her stock answer, which voters have not found convincing, according to the latest CBS poll.
But then Bernie Sanders came to her aid: “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 emails.” The audience went nuts. It takes a village.
Sanders’ gallantry won’t dispel the email issue. Clinton must testify on Oct. 22, and if we’ve learned anything about the email story, there will be new revelations. But within the context of the debate, Sanders saved Clinton from having to elaborate on her unconvincing defense, potentially creating a moment that could have highlighted her big weakness.
Sanders was commanding in a different way. He was relentless on the issue of big money and its influence in politics. “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. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” Sanders didn’t demonstrate Hillary Clinton’s mastery of events, but he showed a consistent passion on his issues. “Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress,” he said in a typical line that the audience found winning.
Martin O’Malley also survived the night with a solid showing. The former Maryland governor has campaigned hard, and he’s barely showing up in the polls. But all the hard work on the road paid off in his answers and in his closing statement. It’s not that O’Malley was transcendent, but for a candidate who has had trouble getting attention, he made the most of his moment.
You could tell this wasn’t a Republican debate because the candidates talked about all that they’d done in government. In the GOP field, it’s the ones who have no governmental experience, like Donald Trump and Ben Carson, who have the hot hand. There was one way in which Clinton did seem like those leading GOP candidates, however. Though she has been under siege for months, and the assaults continued Tuesday night, she appeared to be actually having fun.