With the latest poll numbers tallied and political pundits having spoken, a consensus has emerged: Hillary Clinton won the first Democratic debate and, barring a Benghazi pinata exploding with revelations, has cinched the nomination.
Reasons cited for Clinton’s superior performance have been well hashed by now. Her deft parrying placed her left-of-center but right-of-Sanders. She’s a progressive, she declared, but a pragmatic person who likes to get things done.
A compromiser, in other words. Or perhaps a woman who has learned how to listen and understands that politics requires give-and-take.
In Las Vegas on Tuesday night, Clinton carefully staked out territory that wouldn’t alienate liberals nor necessarily frighten independents — or even moderate Republicans, to the extent any remain.
Her success also rested in part on competition that, with the exception Bernie Sanders, was, how shall we put it ... Lilliputian. Lincoln Chafee’s whine about casting a regrettable Senate vote because he had just arrived in Washington and his father had died was cringingly pathetic.
Neither Jim Webb, who should be a Republican, nor Martin O’Malley disturbed the night. Sanders, though outmaneuvered by Clinton, nonetheless did well enough for his base of supporters. But his most memorable moment belonged to Clinton when he declared that Americans are “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
“Me, too!” Clinton trilled to applause.
It’s not clear that gift-giving was Sanders’ intention. A reporter on MSNBC’S “Morning Joe” said Sanders’ remark had been rehearsed as a way to indict Clinton for her distracting mishandling of the email situation. But Clinton’s quick reaction sealed the deal. She and Sanders shook hands and, hereafter, Clinton is inoculated against the email problem, at least from fellow Democrats.
Her success otherwise was much more than rhetorical skills or clever tactics. It would be understatement to say that Clinton was comfortable in her own skin, though she was. Or that she was authentic, which is true — and usually isn’t.
I’ll say it: She looked fabulous.
This is not trivial. One hopes that feminism and feminists have evolved sufficiently to understand that women in the public eye don’t indulge vanity for its own sake. Vanity is something they deal with as a matter of business so that they can relax and focus on more important things. It’s the price they pay for bright lights.
Clinton verily shimmered with self-confidence and the lightness of spirit that comes from knowing you’re on your game (and that you have a good haircut). There’s no guessing what may have liberated her from the armor she’s worn for so long, but she surpassed not only her opponents but herself. It was undoubtedly helpful that Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had tossed the House speakership over the muddle of Benghazi.
Henceforth, her story is that Republicans created the Benghazi investigation to bring her down, as McCarthy said in so many words.
No wonder she’s so light on her feet. While at least some jurors are still out on the private email server and Benghazi — and the FBI is still busy with its own investigation — Clinton must find it easier to smile these days.
She faces questioning by the House Select Committee on Benghazi when she appears before the panel Oct. 22. Surely we won’t witness a repeat of two years ago when she appeared before a different panel and furiously asked, “What difference at this point does it make?” referring to how or why four Americans were murdered in Libya.
She won’t likely blow a fuse like that again, but she’ll always have to hear that question replayed by her Republican opponents as they seek to undermine her credibility as secretary of state and, by inference, her lack of viability to become commander in chief.
This could backfire on Republicans if they have nothing to show for the money and months they’ve spent trying to produce something they can blame on Clinton as secretary of state. If McCarthy’s blunder isn’t enough evidence of political motivation, it at least reminded voters that smoke can be a sign not just of fire but also of mirrors.
There’s something else from debate night. Clinton was finally able to demonstrate that she’s just as smart as, if not smarter than, her husband. For many years a second to his first place, Hillary is now the Clinton people think of first.
Her inevitability, which hasn’t been so for the past several months, appears to be on the rise again. And Clinton, it seems, owes Republicans a note of gratitude.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.