Hillary Clinton won. She won because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not. She won because the first Democratic presidential debate focused on liberal policies—and not her email scandal or character.
The embattled front-runner won herself a news cycle or two, because she stretched the truth and played to a friendly audience. It won’t always be so.
It took more than an hour before CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about the covert email system she established as secretary of State in defiance of federal regulations, subverting the Freedom of Information Act, thwarting congressional oversight, and jeopardizing U.S. secrets. And, even then, her chief rival offered Clinton cover.
“What I did was allowed by the State Department,” said the woman who headed the State Department, “but it wasn’t the best choice.” Clinton noted that the GOP-led Benghazi committee—the panel that discovered her rogue email system—is on record trying to undermine her credibility. GOP partisans were partisan, and yet, she dramatically declared, “I’m still standing.”
The Democratic crowd roared. “I think the secretary is right,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a populist threatening Clinton from the left. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about emails.”
Professional Democrats and the party’s strongest voters are certainly tired of hearing about the email scandal, but it’s not going to go away—not with the FBI investigating whether confidential information was mishandled under Clinton’s system and not with independent voters losing faith in Clinton’s word.
Character and judgment are gateway political issues. An untrustworthy candidate might check all your policy boxes, might tickle your ideological buttons, and might even grind away long enough to get your vote—but you’re not going to like it.
That is Clinton’s problem. Like it was in 2008, her character is the issue that threatens to consume all others.
The email scandal recalls questions about Clinton’s integrity that go back to the Rose Law Firm/Whitewater and the White House Travel Office. Flip-flopping on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline add weight to the argument made by Democrats and Republicans alike that Clinton is a malleable opportunist.
There are many people, including me, who know a side of Clinton that is strong (2012: “What I Learned Covering Hillary Clinton”) and compelling (2013: “Best Bet for a Third Clinton Term Is if She Runs as the ‘Real Hillary’—Warm, Open, and Honest”), which makes her actions this year shamefully inept (“Memo to Hillary: You’re Still The Problem”).
On the day of the debate, two stories underscored Clinton’s vulnerability.
“A ‘Cancer’ on the Clinton Candidacy” by Politico’s Glenn Thrush and Annie Karni climbs inside the Clinton campaign to describe a paranoid candidate with mediocre political skills refusing advice of staff to come clean on the email issue. “We need to throw the facts to the dogs, and let ‘em chew on it,” senior advisor John Podesta reportedly told the candidate. In the deeply reported story based on interviews with 50 advisers, donors, Democratic operatives, and friends, Clinton’s team appears to throw her under the bus.
That’s certainly how Bill and Hillary Clinton interpreted the story, according to three people who talked to them today. “They’re pissed,” said one.
“How to Beat Hillary Clinton” by the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, featured an October 2007 memo by aides to then-Sen. Barack Obama signaling their successful character attack against Clinton. She “can’t be trusted or believed”; “She’s driven by political calculation”; “She embodies trench warfare vs. Republicans"; “She prides herself on working the system not changing it.”
While held in high favor with Democrats and leading the field in national polls, Clinton is struggling to build enthusiasm behind her nomination bid. On that narrow cause, she may have helped herself Tuesday night.
Crisp and firm, Clinton challenged Sanders’s electability and found cover behind President Obama when the subject turned to her support of the Iraq War. Noting that Obama bludgeoned her with the Iraq vote during their 2008 contest, Clinton said, “He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room going over some very difficult issues.”
One of those issues, she offered with confident nonchalance, was killing Osama bin Laden.
In virtually the next breath, Clinton pushed back against another rival, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, by noting dryly, “I was pleased when Governor O’Malley endorsed me for president in 2008.”
She challenged Sanders’s negative statements about capitalism and his embrace of Denmark-style socialism. Pledging to “save capitalism from itself,” Clinton said, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.” In her bid to raise questions about Sanders’s ability to win a general-election campaign, the issue was a layup.
Sanders faced criticism from Clinton and O’Malley for voting to protect gun manufacturers, an issue at odds with a Democratic base that is lurching leftward. When Cooper asked if Sanders is tough enough on guns, Clinton said, “No, not at all.”
Sanders and O’Malley said Clinton isn’t tough enough on trade, noting that she only recently abandoned her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to curry favor with the party’s union friends. Was it a flip-flop? “I did say when I was secretary of State three years ago that I hoped it would be the gold standard,” Clinton said.
She was misquoting herself, adding the “I hoped” caveat. Here’s what she actually said at the time: "This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.”
See how she does it? It worked Tuesday night. She won. She survived and won with a performance that was as dishonest as it was impressive, that benefited from a friendly crowd and weak field. When Lincoln Chafee, the field’s Rhode Island cipher, dared to criticize Clinton on the email issue, Cooper asked her if she wanted to respond.
“No,” she replied.
The crowd roared.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.