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In Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate on CNN, Hillary Clinton was so confident, relaxed and well-prepared she not only defeated her four opponents on the stage but she also sent a warning shot to absent Vice President Joe Biden.
Her unstated message was, "Give it a rest, Joe. There’s no room for you in this race.''
Debates matter in presidential politics — ask Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson — and skipping one, especially this first one (in Las Vegas), is like folding your hand in a poker game without looking at your cards. Perhaps Biden will be turned on by what he saw — and you can bet he watched — but he’s been in politics long enough to know the game is being played at a table where he’s not sitting. If he keeps stalling, he’ll have no chance to have a respectable showing, much less win the Democratic nomination.
Bernie Sanders was his usual bombastic, hyperbolic self, attacking Wall Street, big banks and billionaires at every turn. It’s as though all ills in society can be addressed by taxing or emasculating the rich and powerful. When asked how he’ll accomplish his goals, his answer is almost always by millions of Americans marching, protesting and demanding fundamental change. This complicates Sanders’ cause. Most people don’t want to have to demonstrate to bring about political change; voting is about as far as they’re willing to go — and turnout suggests damn few of them are willing to do that. Sanders is saying that, to rein in the billionaire class, people must become politically active at federal, state and local levels. Perhaps they will, but as one of his opponents said, there won’t be any revolution in America. Sanders’ lack of pre-debate preparation sessions -- he didn’t do mock debates, a sine qua non for any serious candidate-- showed when he was unable to answer Clinton on his votes against the Brady bill five times and in favor of immunity for gun sellers and gun makers. Clinton got a break when Sanders said to her that he was "sick and tired of your damn emails." Only her defense of Planned Parenthood got louder, longer applause.
Hillary Clinton’s debate experience (she's participated in about 25) showed; she was calm, cool and collected. She was in command of the facts and her arguments. At the risk of seeming sexist, I think she also looked good. She knew how to react when others were talking, mainly smiling and nodding her assent but occasionally looking like she disagreed but without grimacing or looking angry. She wisely decided to point out the differences between Democrats and Republicans, previewing her general election arguments, faulting the GOP on war, taxes, Social Security and Medicare. Her complaint about Republicans wanting to de-fund Planned Parenthood drew thunderous applause.
Clinton was so obviously the winner last night that on-camera analysts proclaimed her victory almost immediately after the debate ended. David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to President Obama, used the word “fluid” to describe her performance. Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to President Bill Clinton, said it was probably her best debate performance ever. Politico’s panel of political professionals gave it to Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly; 79 percent of Democratic analysts said she won; 54 percent of Republicans did.
Muhammed Ali, before one of his epic boxing matches against George Forman, proclaimed that he’d “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” That describes what Hillary Clinton did last night.
For the other three candidates, it was open mic night and they bombed. Lincoln Chaffee, a former Rhode Island senator and governor, appeared like the old-time comedian Dr. Irwin Corey, confused and confusing. He should drop out of the race. Soon. Ditto for Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia and former secretary of the Navy; he should run in the Republican primaries. He took conservative positions on guns, taxes and energy, agreeing at one point that he’s pro-coal and pro-nuclear power. Asked to name his enemy, he oddly recalled the soldier who tried to kill him in Vietnam but is dead now.
Martin O'Malley, former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor, had the most to gain but stumbled periodically and didn’t sustain a line of reasoning or attack. Clinton stung him when she recalled that he had endorsed her in 2004. O’Malley argued that all the things that his opponents said they’d do as president, he’d already done as governor. He wasn’t flaky, but Sanders’ strength has all but pushed him off the stage.
Anderson Cooper, CNN host and chief interrogator, did his best imitation of his colleague, the pugilistic Jake Tapper. Cooper was tough, especially on Clinton, right from the start, going after her for changing her position on gay marriage and most recently on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. She slipped the noose on that one, but she should expect more rough treatment in the coming weeks and at subsequent debates. Five more are scheduled.
As the late Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” but it’s much closer to being over after last night.
Dan Payne is a Democratic political analyst for WBUR and a regular contributor to The Boston Globe.
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