Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived at the first Democratic presidential debate on an urgent mission: re-establishing trust with women, liberals and others who have come to doubt her honesty and political competence after months of controversy and shifting policy positions.
By the midpoint of Tuesday night’s debate, she had seized every opening to try to accomplish that goal.
Clinton made it clear right from her opening remarks that she believed “the wealthy pay too little and the middle class pays too much” in taxes, echoing a rallying cry among liberal Democrats. She sought to create a bond with voters by saying she would judge free-trade deals, which are broadly unpopular on the left, by whether she could “look into the eyes of any middle-class American and say this will help raise your wages.”
And she was blunt in saying that she had a liberal political philosophy but was also a pragmatic leader who would work with both Democrats and Republican to pass legislation.
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“I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she said. “I know how to find common ground, but I know how to stand my ground.”
Clinton was effective in cornering her chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, on the issue of gun control. Sanders, who is hugely popular among liberals, has also opposed some gun control legislation like the Brady Bill – and Clinton made sure that voters knew it.
After Sanders defended his record on gun laws, the moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, asked if Sanders was “tough enough” on guns.
“No. Not at all,” Clinton said emphatically. She then listed Sanders’ history opposing gun control at length – well aware that every minute a Democratic debate was about gun control was a minute too long for Sanders.
Sanders repeatedly chose not to criticize Clinton as intently as she went after him. Indeed, one of his best moments came when Cooper tried to coax him to criticize Clinton over her use of a private email server as secretary of state, a source of persistent questions and misgivings among Democrats.
“Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right – the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said to cheers from the Democratic audience.
“Thank you!” Clinton said, reaching out and shaking his hand.
The burdens on Clinton were unusually heavy for the first debate of a presidential campaign, when candidates typically focus on introducing themselves to a national television audience and gently drawing distinctions with their rivals. Not so Clinton: The continuing Republican attacks over her trustworthiness and judgment, particularly over her use of a personal email server as secretary of state, have tarnished her in the eyes of many Democratic voters. Some are tired of endless Clinton melodramas, others tantalized by Sanders’ left-wing candidacy.
Given Clinton’s vulnerabilities – she lags behind Sanders in polls of New Hampshire primary voters – she needed to use the debate to persuade voters to look beyond her political troubles and see her as likable, rather than programmed; as genuinely liberal, as opposed to strategic; and ultimately as electable, instead of as a damaged candidate compared with, say, Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering entering the race.
Clinton’s unspoken aim was to demonstrate such strength and spiritedness that Biden would see little point in challenging her for the Democratic nomination. “The combination of a sound debate performance where her likability and her qualifications come through would be very dissuading to anyone considering entering the race,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist who is not involved in the presidential race.
By that standard Clinton did well, on domestic policy as well as foreign policy. Her expertise as secretary of state translated into stature on the debate stage – a mastery of world affairs, a sophistication about global challenges, a poise and temperament that looked, well, presidential. On dealing with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Clinton crisply described the ways that the United States’ relationship with Russia had soured since Putin returned to office.
“We have to stand up to his bullying,” Clinton said. “I think it’s important too that the United States make it very clear to Putin that it’s not acceptable for him to be in Syria, creating more chaos, bombing people in support of Assad,” referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Later, when another Democratic candidate, Lincoln Chafee, criticized Clinton for “poor judgment calls” in authorizing the invasion of Iraq, Clinton deftly pivoted by noting that President Barack Obama apparently had no problem with her judgment when he selected her as secretary of state.
The most vexing challenge for Clinton was how to handle Sanders. He has consistently taken the high road whenever controversy has engulfed her, as he did in refraining from trying to score points over her email controversy.
Clinton is skilled at parrying direct attacks, like those she faced in 2008 from her Democratic rivals over the Iraq War, health care, and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. With Sanders, she needed to find ways to undercut him without undercutting her own goals of appearing personable and appealing to his supporters to give her a second look.
Clinton chose to challenge Sanders carefully on issues that are important to liberals, and more forcefully on gun control. She was the first to criticize another candidate, chiding Sanders over his distaste for the excesses of capitalism and his embrace of democratic socialism and political systems like the government of Denmark.
“We are not Denmark – I love Denmark – we are the United States of America,” Clinton said. “We would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”
Sanders pushed back at times, noting his support for small businesses and later his backing for some gun control laws. While he criticized some of her hawkish foreign policy stands, including support for a no-fly zone in Syria, he had fewer memorable moments than Clinton as he stuck to reiterating his long record of supporting campaign finance reform and fighting against climate change.
But for the most part, rather than compete against Sanders, she sought to reinforce her support for issues important to crucial Democratic primary constituencies: a criminal justice overhaul and gun control (a priority for black and Hispanic voters) and equal pay (female voters).
In the end, Clinton’s criticisms of Sanders appeared unlikely to dissuade his supporters, who include 650,000 donors – many of whom believe they are supporting a noble political cause against an establishment that Clinton is the face of. His admirers like that he does not make typical political attacks – the sort that Clinton made throughout the night. Yet she did not land any blows against Sanders that could fundamentally change the dynamics of their race.
“She needs to clearly beat Bernie in one of the debates, because simply tying him – or letting him come across as stronger and more authentic – will simply keep propelling his candidacy,” said Dan Payne, a Democratic communications consultant. “The good news for her is, she has at least five more debates to get that chance.”