I wrote last night that I believed that Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate in convincing fashion, and after sleeping on it, I believe that’s still true. However, the liberal pundits who are echoing basically the same thing this morning are still getting it wrong.
I turned off the post-debate coverage last night because I simply could not stomach the feting Hillary Clinton was receiving from the Democrats CNN had assembled to analyze the debate. I understand, however, that Van Jones, Paul Begala et al are now saying that Clinton’s performance was “flawless” and are suggesting that she has re-established herself as the prohibitive favorite in both the Democratic primary and also in the general.
Well, not so fast. Hillary made a number of relatively significant mistakes on stage that will likely be exposed when and if she faces a Republican in the general and that someone with savvy (maybe Joe Biden) could exploit on the Democratic side. For instance, her wandering and borderline insane answer on what happened in Libya (i.e., that the Arab Spring resulted in moderates being Democratically elected, but then unknown and unpredictable forces led to radicals taking over) was both laughable substantively and also gave the impression that she really did not care about the lives lost in the attack on Benghazi.
Further, while the audience loved her answer about the emails, it was essentially more of the same “this is all the Republicans’ fault” that has demonstrably not worked despite the fact that Hillary has been trying it for seven months. Even Anderson Cooper was forced to point out that, while the answer was popular among people who paid money to watch a Democratic partisan debate, it did nothing to quell the larger controversy and questions that people have.
Hillary’s performance in last night’s debate was not by any means stellar. She failed to connect emotionally with the audience at literally any point, and had no high points that will likely be remembered two weeks from now. The largest applause she got was when Anderson Cooper asked her if she wanted to respond to Lincoln Chafee and she said, “No.”
Hillary largely managed to win the debate easily because the other candidates were so very terrible. Lincoln Chafee’s pasted-on smile and half-stoned demeanor rivaled Lindsay Graham’s performance in the second “kids table” debate for sheer creepiness, and I suspect the Democrats are going to politely disinvite him from the next debate. Jim Webb was knowledgeable but out of step with Democratic primary voters and spent way too much of his time repeatedly complaining about the lack of attention that was paid to him during the debate. Martin O’Malley looked like an automaton whose sole programming function was to agree with Hillary. And Bernie Sanders was too busy doing his best impression of Homer Simpson’s dad (complete with several pauses to enthusiastically dig wax out of his ear) to impress anyone.
So Hillary’s performance was by far better than anyone else’s on stage, but that is only because it was “passable.”
Furthermore, in this election cycle, voters have not responded to debate performances in the way pundits would otherwise expect. Bernie Sanders is essentially the Democrats’ version of Ben Carson – a guy who isn’t telegenic or magnetic personally, but is somehow nonetheless managing to attract a cult following. Ben Carson’s performance in the second CNN debate was objectively terrible – he was unprepared, lacked knowledge of basic issues, and went ignored for lengthy stretches of time because the debate ground to a complete halt every time he was on camera; but Carson has risen steadily in the polls since that debate. There seems to be a similar phenomenon going on among the Democrats, who are trying to show equal determination to reject conventional wisdom about who is doing “well” in a campaign and support an “outsider” candidate.
Of course, the difference is that the Republican “outsider” is a retired pediatric neurosurgeon who’s never held elected office before, and the Democrats’ version of an “outsider” is a guy who’s been in Congress for 25 years – but I digress.
The point here is that, while Hillary had the best performance last night on the merits, there is no reason to think that even Democratic primary voters will agree, or that even if they do agree, that they will reward her in the polls. Further there is no reason to think, based on her performance, that Hillary is anything other than an average or barely capable debator, or that she could hold her ground with either of the two genuine talents on the GOP side this year. Nor, I have to think, did she successfully scare Joe Biden out of the race.
Hillary Clinton wasn’t a giant last night, she was just the tallest pygmy on that particular stage.