Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked onto the first Democratic debate stage a weakened frontrunner. She departed confident and once again dominant.After months of playing defense over her emails and questions about her trustworthiness and progressive credentials, Clinton took the opportunity to go on offense against her Democratic rivals as well as her Republican opponents.
The debate proved to be a far more substantive contest than the two Republican gatherings, as the Democrats sought to rebuild the coalition that twice elected President Obama. Weeks of debate preparation paid off for Clinton, who forcefully outmaneuvered her two principal opponents, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
In the lead-up to the debate, it remained an open question whether her rivals would directly attack Clinton. Instead, it was Clinton who came out swinging to expose their vulnerabilities.
As she has done throughout the primary, Clinton also sought to thread the needle between attracting liberal Democrats and avoiding positions that she might regret during the general election.
When Sanders made the case for his brand of populist authenticity, Clinton pitched herself as agreeing with him in principle but taking a more pragmatic approach. “I am a progressive,” she said, when pressed by host Anderson Cooper on her political beliefs. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
When asked to name the enemy she’s proudest of making, Clinton rattled off a list that included the NRA, Iranians, health insurers and drug companies before saying that her final answer was “probably the Republicans.”
In a calculated move designed to appeal to the primary audience, Clinton aligned herself closely with Obama. When asked what policy differences she has with White House, she would not point to any, revealing a certain line of attack for Republicans next fall. “There is a lot I would like to do to build on the
successes of President Obama,” she said, promising to “go further” than the president on issues from banking regulation to immigration reform.
In a boon for Clinton, she also saw O’Malley and Sanders defend her from criticism over her use of a private email server at the State Department. “I think the Secretary is right,” Sanders said, in a line he has already started fundraising over. “And that is I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
“Thank you, Bernie,” Clinton replied, with a laugh and a handshake.
In a sign of how much the debate revolved around Clinton, both Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, and his top advisor, Tad Devine, said after the debate that the moment was his strongest moment, while Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said Sanders “probably gave himself an assist and he gave us an assist” with the line.