When Hillary Clinton was asked in the first Democratic debate to name a personal enemy, the capper of her answer was, “the Republicans.”
Yet Republican presidential candidates seem to be her unwitting allies -- Donald Trump in particular. Their demolition derby has so eclipsed coverage of the Democratic race that one might wonder: Is there really a Democratic contest?
Clinton, wanting minimal attention for her primary opponents, must be pleased at the timing of their coming debate -- 9 p.m. this Saturday. I’m sure that Democrats will tune in by the hundreds.
If there’s any hope for Clinton’s opponents -- I almost wrote, “Clinton’s challengers,” as if she’s the incumbent -- something bad must happen to her on Inevitability Road. Something like, oh, say, an indictment for sharing classified information in emails sent using her private server.
Meanwhile, her opponents have retooled their strategies to be able to pounce if she is vulnerable.
Bernie Sanders seems to have realized the obvious: It was a blunder for him to let her off the hook on her email scandal. He received warm approval from the earlier Democratic debate audience -- including Clinton -- when he said he was sick and tired of hearing about her “damn emails.” But when she then went up in the polls, leaving him far behind, he learned that the issue of integrity (Clinton still has a majority of the general electorate thinking she is not “honest or trustworthy”) was key in making the case against her. That’s largely true because she shrewdly (dishonestly?) changed her positions on various issues to be as “progressive” as Sanders. She even outflanked him on the left on the issue of gun control.
Martin O’Malley (yes, there is a fellow with that name reportedly still a candidate) is now making the case that he is the most reliably progressive because: a) unlike Clinton, he was liberal in action (as governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore), not just in recent rhetoric; and b) unlike Sanders, he is “a lifelong Democrat.” Sanders was an independent, and “democratic socialist,” his entire political career -- but caucused with the Democrats in the Senate.
The debate moderator will be John Dickerson, host of CBS’ Sunday morning talk show, “Face The Nation.” Dickerson is an Old School journalist -- fair and factual -- so the debate will likely focus on substantive issues. But fireworks are expected in the debate because Sanders and O’Malley must try to make news. And only conflict will make enough news to have any significant impact on the race.
It’s likely, too, that all the candidates will try to appeal to Democratic voters by mocking the Republican presidential candidates. But it’s probably safe to say that none of them will go as far as Donald Trump did in mocking his rivals.
Trump’s 95-minute rant Thursday evening in Iowa was like a crazy caricature of his usual performance. In his tirade he mocked Ben Carson for nine minutes. He compared Carson’s “pathological” temper as a youth to the pathology of a child molester. He mocked his other opponents, as well, with his usual insults. To top it off, he even mocked voters — asking how stupid the people in Iowa, and nationally, must be to believe Carson’s stories about his troubled youth and his religious conversion.
But if you watch Trump’s fans behind him on the stage during his nine-minute rant about Carson — and you really should, unless you prefer to watch old footage of Benito Mussolini -- you’ll see that he slowly loses the enthusiasm of many supporters. Even the most angry, frustrated Iowans aren’t vicious like Trump is in this diatribe about Carson trying to stab someone. In play-acting the knife incident, trying to refute the possibility that a knife could be deflected by a belt buckle, Trump reminded me of the bigoted juror in the film, “Twelve Angry Men,” who was so hateful in trying to make the case for guilt of the accused, he gradually turned off one juror after another.
A pundit on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” pointed out that Trump’s speech may have seemed crazy, but it was “compelling.” True. There’s no doubting that The Donald can be the most dramatic speaker -- especially when he seems unhinged and not even knows what he’s going to say next.
But it is drama that Hillary Clinton must find comedic. Absurdity in the GOP race is good news for her, because it means almost no news for her Democratic primary opponents.
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker.