Hillary Clinton’s superb debate performance on Sunday raised an unsettling question: If she can be this consistently good on a debate stage, why can’t she replicate that impressiveness on the campaign trail or in interviews? Clinton was once again in superior form Sunday night in South Carolina, besting Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus.
Clinton’s debating performance is formidable because it combines her intelligence with a sincerity and level of conviction that often seem absent in other forums. When she opened the debate speaking of Martin Luther King Jr.’s role fighting for increased wages, she used his career as a subtle metaphor for what she is pitching: principled leadership with a strong practical bent. That mixture, along with her strength in close-quarter combat and an ability to wrap herself in President Obama’s record—something that played well to the Charleston crowd in the auditorium—was what won her this debate.
Clinton had several strong moments Sunday night. “Ninety people a day die from gun violence in this country,” she noted, before going on to attack Sanders’ record on the Second Amendment, methodically reciting a series of his congressional votes. For some reason Sanders still struggles when pressed on his gun rights votes; he called Clinton “disingenuous” and said that guns “should not be a political issue.” Sanders has run an impressive race and is challenging Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but Clinton’s ability to bring him to earth and seem like just another politician—his weird, Trump-like quoting of polls tonight didn’t help—is remarkable. (The moderators helped her tonight by making it appear as if Sanders had changed or updated a number of his positions.)
The same dynamic occurred when the subject turned to health care. Clinton’s attack on Sanders’ support for a single-payer system is, er, “disingenuous” (as Jim Newell pointed out in Slate last week). But the way she attacked Sanders on the issue tonight was effective: She essentially claimed that Sanders’ plan would cause a huge amount of disruption in Obamacare, and thus reopen the battle that has barely ended over the president’s signature program. Sanders needs to figure out a way to answer this criticism, but he certainly didn’t do so tonight.
Clinton’s answers on race and the heroin epidemic—about the former she used the phrase “systemic racism,” and also spoke passionately about the latter—were equally impressive. Even on the issue of banking and regulatory reform, Clinton got the best of the exchange by turning it into a debate on President Obama. Her attack on Sanders for voting for Bill Clinton’s bill on derivatives, meanwhile, was pretty shameless; Sanders, predictably, didn’t mention it was a Clinton bill and didn’t really respond to her attack. This should be an issue where Sanders dominates the debate, and his trouble doing so was indicative of his larger struggles this evening. (As for Martin O’Malley, he probably had his best debate—such as it was—although he also had the most absurd moment of the night when he claimed he was running because “black lives matter.”)
Even so, there was no knockout moment for Clinton: Most of Sanders’ supporters, like Trump’s, are probably not too caught up in his debate performances, and are instead rightly focused—here they differ from Trump’s fans—on his policy platform. But despite all the headlines about Clinton’s recent struggles, she is still overwhelmingly likely to be the Democratic nominee. She doesn’t need to knock Sanders out.
On Sunday morning, the New York Times ran a story about Clinton’s campaign, and it was a familiar one: The campaign wasn’t going as she had hoped; she had underestimated her opponent (no, not Martin O’Malley); and she has now found herself in a race that is closer than she ever expected. But the biggest mistake her campaign made, arguably, was going along with the Democratic National Committee’s debate schedule. That schedule included debates that often take place on weekends (three-day weekends, even!). Not surprisingly, they have been getting much lower viewership numbers than the Republican debates. (Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the hapless DNC chair, laughably claimed that the DNC’s goal was to make sure lots of people see them.)
But the larger point is that the Clinton team’s hesitancy—or anxiety—about the debates shows just how misguided it has been. By “playing it safe,” they not only allowed a huge opening for Sanders, but also eschewed the opportunity to exhibit the candidate in the one forum were she doesn’t seem like a politician who plays it safe. The best hope for the Clinton campaign is that she wins at least one of the first two states, and then trounces Sanders in South Carolina, effectively wrapping up the nomination and preparing to face Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or Trump. Unfortunately, she’ll have to wait until after the summer to debate one of them.