Just before tonight's Democratic debate began in Las Vegas, I made a prediction:
Hillary's going to pivot to attacking GOP at every opportunity. Play to base. Little benefit hitting Bernie or Joe (in absentia). #DemDebate— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) October 14, 2015
And so it came to pass. Mrs. Clinton presented herself as the experienced, hyper-informed, trailblazing adult in the room throughout the evening, directing almost all of her verbal punches at Republicans. Only once did she directly attack one of her rivals: Bernie Sanders, (predictably) on gun control, perhaps the only issue on which she can credibly outflank him to the left. In spite of her hedging on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and marijuana legalization, extremely weak answers on Libya and trade, and unresponsive dismissiveness on her burgeoning email scandal (her denunciation of Edward Snowden for his handling of sensitive information was quite rich), Clinton won the debate. She established herself as the only plausible nominee on the stage -- benefitting greatly, I suspect, from Bernie Sanders' performance in the long run. He'll delight his base (see update) and raise a lot of small donor money, but many Democratic voters will ultimately recognize that he's unelectable in a general election. She was prepared and polished; he was passionate, but a bit frazzled, appearing to lose is train of thought on several occasions. Remember, it took an extremely skilled communicator and a dynamic debater to upend Hillary Clinton in 2008, effectively and authentically taking her apart from the left without alienating the general electorate. Nobody on that stage tonight is capable of beating her in the same way this cycle. On the issue that exemplifies her weaknesses as a candidate -- her ongoing, national security-compromising email scandal -- Clinton's closest competitor gamely let her off the hook, casting the issue as a distraction from real issues. The email saga underlines her arrogant posture toward laws and rules, her reckless disregard for national security protocols designed to keep our most sensitive secrets away from prying eyes, and her propensity to lie -- often and shamelessly. Bernie Sanders chose to circle the wagons. He's unwilling to do what it takes to defeat her, while she again and again telegraphed her election strategy of playing the gender card without even a nod at subtlety:
How'd you be different than Obama? Hillary: WOMAN! #DemDebate— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) October 14, 2015
With respect, the other men on stage are afterthoughts. Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley may have helped himself a bit, hammering away at Republicans and the NRA throughout the evening. His numbers might bounce a little, but they're prohibitively low, and this wasn't a breakout performance. Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb challenged the presiding hard-left winds on guns, on the Iran deal, on energy, and on executive power. He's far too centrist to have a prayer in today's Democratic Party. Rhode Island's resident Republican-cum-Independent-cum-Democrat Lincoln Chafee was awful. Interestingly, one name that wasn't uttered once: Joe Biden. If the sitting Vice President is planning to jump into the race, he'd better get on with it. He's the only person who seems like a long-run threat to Hillary Clinton, who used tonight's first (of just six) Democratic debates to reassure jittery members of her party that she'll be fine. And to remind them that she's a woman, many times. If Biden was waiting for a disastrous Hillary showing tonight to usher him into the race, he didn't get it. Tick tock, Mr. Vice President.
CNN's Anderson Cooper delivered a strong barrage of opening questions, pressing each candidate on major weaknesses. This debate wasn't especially tightly produced, and the video questions element was clunky and unnecessary, but Cooper's questioning and follow-ups were mainly solid. As is all too often the case, debate questioners failed to even attempt to paint Democrats into uncomfortable ideological corners on controversial social issues like abortion, LGBT rights, or even guns. There was plenty of sparring on the latter issue (abortion was entirely unmentioned, despite Democrats' breathtaking extremism on the issue), but the inquiries weren't engineered to produce general election attack ads. Overall, I think Ari Fleischer nailed it:
I don't think anything changed. Hill did well. Sanders keeps his base. O'Malley impressed & might blip up. But D race, unlike R, is stable— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) October 14, 2015
UPDATE - Bernie may have come off as a shouty one-trick pony to many average viewers, but two real-time focus groups comprised of core Democratic voters apparently loved him. Let's see if and how the polling moves, but this is interesting early data:
Wow - @randikayeCNN focus group thought THE BERN won debate tonight. He def had moment of strength on emails. May be enough in boring debate— Bruce Haynes (@BrucePurple) October 14, 2015
Parting thought: Who want to take bets on how this forum rated, compared to the previous GOP debates?