Most conventional-wisdom types seemed content with Hillary Clinton’s recent presidential debate performance, saying she did well enough to stabilize her sometimes-rocky campaign. They’re probably right. That’s good for Clinton in the short-term, but is it good for her political party in the long-term?
If the most talked about debate moment is any indication, it should have Democrats inwardly concerned, despite their outward facing optimism. That moment, oddly enough, was when the passionate insurgent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, defended Hillary and her use of a private email server. He said people were sick and tired of “hearing about her damn emails.” She laughed. The crowd cheered.
Stepping back, though, it has to be bad for the frontrunner when your underdog opponent gives the best answer to your own scandal in a more impactful way than you. Sanders did what Clinton hasn’t been able to do. That made it a good moment for Clinton. But what happens when her opponent is a Republican who won’t defend her? What happens when it gets serious?
Primaries should toughen candidates and expose vulnerabilities, not minimize them. Democrats may dismiss Congressional and FBI investigations into Hillary’s time as Secretary of State, but most voters will not. Sanders, more focused on defending another liberal, didn’t do what a real opponent should. He gave her a pass. She should enjoy it, because it won’t happen again.
Hillary is certainly a formidable candidate, but she has many weaknesses, and they’re made worse by her unwillingness to control them. Pride that leads to recklessness. Defensiveness that turns conspiratorial. Then anger when it’s all pointed out. These weaknesses make an average candidate something less than average. She has very little of the human talent of her husband. That’s a point that’s been made over an over again. It may be stale, but still true.
It almost seems like Hillary has never put the events of the 1990’s behind her. She responds to any criticism by simply blaming Republicans, even though polls show voters consider her untrustworthy. A reputation as poor as hers isn’t the fault of others, nor is it easily earned. It’s why in the debate the most convincing response to another Clinton scandal didn’t come from a Clinton. You almost get the feeling that the Democrats’ hearts are with Bernie Sanders, but their minds are with Hillary. In the past, it’s been the other way around.
Bill Clinton made famous the theory that, when it comes to choosing Presidential nominees, “Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line.” He said that in 2003, meaning that Republicans usually nominate the next guy in line, like a Bob Dole or a John McCain. Democrats go with the person who makes their heart flutter, like a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama.
In 2016, Democrats seem to be following the traditional Republican path and falling in line. Hillary may have all the credentials to be a nominee. She’s more than competent and intelligent enough. But is it enough to be the intellectual choice, rather than the emotional one?
On the debate stage last week, it was clear that Bernie’s heart did what Hillary’s brain could not. He answered the toughest question for her, in a way that no other opponent would. Time will tell whether it actually helped, or simply further concealed weaknesses that will eventually show themselves again.
Vice-President Joe Biden could enter the race in the next few days. If I were a Democrat, that wouldn’t be a bad thing. He has the Bernie heart and the Hillary brain, his only weakness being the Biden mouth. He could still challenge her in a way that no one else has. More competition today might be good, since in the general election Bernie Sanders won’t be standing nearby to save Clinton from Republican attacks.
Instead of cheering when the opponent tosses a life jacket, Democrats should hope their frontrunner learns to swim. That’s safer than falling in line and hoping it works out.