All summer long, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was defined largely by one word: email.
On Tuesday night, in the first Democratic presidential debate in Las Vegas, the embattled front-runner pushed past the controversy that has dogged her campaign and exhibited a fighting spirit in a series of passionate appeals to voters who still question her liberal bona fides. What’s more is that she did so with considerable help from her primary rival.
Halfway through the two-and-a-half-hour debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders affirmed Clinton’s characterization of the congressional investigation into her private email server as a Republican scheme to destroy her campaign.
“Let me say something that I think may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right,” he said. “And I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”
Clinton flashed a wide smile, extended her hand, and said, “Thank you, Bernie.”
The debate crowd erupted, and though moderator Anderson Cooper attempted to press the issue further, the conversation quickly moved to financial regulation, college affordability, immigration, climate change—with Clinton using every opportunity to highlight the detailed policy proposals from her campaign that have been eclipsed for months.
As her rivals challenged her liberal credentials, she pledged a “new New Deal” for racial minorities, vowed to “rein in the excesses of capitalism,” and delivered a blistering attack on Republicans for their attempts to defund Planned Parenthood: “I’m not taking the backseat to anybody on my values, my principles, and the results I get,” she declared to applause.
It was a performance that reminded people why she was once seen as the Democrats' inevitable nominee, and it should serve to stabilize her struggling campaign and quiet nervous supporters who feared her second bid for the White House was in deep trouble.
Nevertheless, the night also provided opportunities for Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to outflank Clinton on the left as they questioned her judgment and character. CNN’s Cooper pushed that line of questioning when he asked about her inconsistencies on a variety of issues, from trade agreements to same-sex marriage. Her answers likely did her no favors to the growing number of people who tell pollsters they see her as untrustworthy.
“Everyone on this stage has changed a position or two,” she said. “We know that if you are learning, you are going to change your positions.”
Discussing her drawn-out decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, she offered a line that echoed John Kerry’s bungled explanation of his Iraq war funding vote in 2004: “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.” Indeed, Republican operatives were already gloating on Twitter about the potential for attack ads.
Attempting to gain ground, Sanders, O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee repeatedly turned the conversation to Clinton’s Iraq war vote—one of her biggest liabilities in the 2008 race—saying that it showed poor judgment. Sanders said it was the “worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country,” while Chafee said, “I did my homework,” and voted no.
Clinton, however, breezed past it, noting that she had argued with Obama over the issue during the course of more than two dozen debates eight years ago—and that he nevertheless chose her to be his secretary of State. “He valued my judgment,” she said, to cheers. She also won applause by pointing out that O’Malley endorsed her in that campaign.
Sanders also managed to score points with the crowd, getting big applause for his appeal to break up the largest banks and his unapologetic labeling of climate change as the nation's paramount security threat.
Some of the most pointed exchanges came on the issue of gun control, with Clinton—far more willing to go on the attack than her lone rival in the polls—attempting to portray Sanders as weak on the topic; he comes from rural Vermont, where hunting is prevalent, and he has a mixed record. Sanders touted his low “D-” rating from the National Rifle Association and pledged his support for instant background checks and tougher regulations, but he said political leaders needed to find consensus with rural gun-owners. O’Malley seized on that, emphasizing his record of passing tougher gun measures in Maryland. Clinton went further. “It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA,” she said.
If Tuesday night demonstrated that Clinton's Democratic rivals have no interest in making her emails into an issue in the primary, there's an upcoming reminder that her Republican rivals have no interest in letting the issue ever go away—and that if she wins the nomination, she'll have to contend with it all over again.
Clinton is set to testify before the Republican-controlled House committee looking into the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Among the topics on the agenda: email.
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Michael J. Mishak is a political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential campaign for National Journal. Previously, he was a national political writer for The Associated Press in Miami, where his coverage of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio won state and regional awards. He also covered Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature for the Los Angeles Times and politics and labor for the Las Vegas Sun, where he contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning series about construction worker deaths on the Strip. A Philadelphia native, Mishak cut his political teeth reporting on his hometown's mayoral race in 2003, which played out amid a federal corruption probe and the attempted firebombing of a candidate's office.