Tuesday night's Democratic debate showed that 2008 helped Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2015.
The experience the former first lady, senator and secretary of State gained debating Barack Obama in their race then gave her a command of the stage Tuesday her four opponents couldn’t match.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist (though he couldn’t exactly define that when given the chance) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley had their moments, but Democratic strategists and consultants surveyed by CQ Roll Call said Clinton’s biggest win was reassuring donors and activists who might have had doubts about how she would perform.
Jessica Vanden Berg, a Democratic consultant in Iowa who has managed House and Senate campaigns, including Jim Webb's in 2006, said the overall lesson from the debate was: “Do debate prep.”
Game. Set. And Match. At least for tonight for Hillary.— Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) October 14, 2015
If the scandal swirling around Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State was going to be an issue during the debate, Sanders cut it off quickly.
After Clinton admitted using the private server was a “mistake,” as she has in the past, Sanders jumped in. “Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
After admonishing the media for not focusing on the issues he hears people talking about on the campaign trail, Sanders said, “Enough of the emails! Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
Clinton turned to Sanders, shook his hand and thanked him as both smiled.
After Sen. Lincoln Chafee responded to CNN moderator Anderson Cooper’s question about whether the emails are a partisan issue — as Clinton has contended — Chafee said it was a question of ethics. Cooper asked Clinton if she wanted to respond to Chafee’s assertion. She gave a succinct response: “No.”
Most agreed that one-two punch was the highlight of the night.
All agreed that Chafee fell flat on the big stage.
Asked by Cooper about changing parties, Chafee said, “Anderson, you’re looking at a block of granite when it comes to the issues.”
Asked later about his vote on repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which required banks to keep commercial and investment practices separate, Chafee pretty much admitted he hadn’t read the legislation before he voted for it.
“I’d just arrived at the United States Senate. I’d been mayor of my city. My dad had died. I’d been appointed by the governor. It was the first vote and it was 90-5 because it was a conference report,” the former Rhode Island governor said.
Rick Ridder, a former presidential campaign manager, who has been a senior consultant to five presidential campaigns as well as congressional and gubernatorial campaigns, said Chafee looked “overmatched and unprepared.”
Ridder, who is president and co-founder of progressive consulting firm RBI Strategies, pointed to Chafee’s answer on his Glass-Steagall Act vote: “That comment that, 'I didn't know what I was voting for.' And then he repeated it.”
“Just brutal,” agreed Caitlin Legacki, a principal at former Obama campaign official Stephanie Cutter's Precision Strategies.
Looking like Chafee's last (and only) debate. Ditto for Webb. No? — Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) October 14, 2015
While most strategists praised Sanders’ “classy” answer on Clinton’s emails, they didn’t think he had a strong performance overall.
"Sanders really does come across as a one trick pony,” Ridder said. “He comes across as an angry old uncle. The camera really did not like the guy. If I were running his campaign, I'd keep him away from TV."
O’Malley needed a strong performance to get some traction in the race, but most thought he didn’t deliver. While he showed some substance, his performance was rated uneven.
"Governor O’Malley fell flat,” said Adrianne Marsh, a Democratic consultant who managed Sen. Claire McCaskill’s re-election campaign in Missouri and served as deputy chairwoman for Sen. Michael Bennet’s winning race in Colorado in 2010. “He came across like an actor playing a politician, so while he had some great lines and performed fairly well, there was a believability factor that he lacked. He needed a huge night and it just wasn’t there.”
Ridder said he thought O’Malley's assertion that unlike his four opponents, he had never served in Congress might give him an opportunity.
"He was disassociating himself from the rest of the crowd who had been in the Senate. He created separation and became a little bit of an outsider,” he said. “Whereas [Sanders’ line about the emails] is more entertaining, it's not necessarily as politically important."
While consultants praised Sanders’ passion, they said he lacked the pragmatism that it takes to compromise.
Legacki pointed to a “sleeper” line by Webb, responding to Sanders’ vow to lead a political revolution against Wall Street.
"I’ve got a great deal of admiration and affection for Sen. Sanders,” the former senator said. “But, Bernie, I don’t thing the revolution’s going to come, and I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff.”
“It was Jim Webb's only moment of clarity in the entire debate, but drives to the core issue of pragmatism that has and will continue to dog Bernie and what the next president will actually be able to achieve,” Legacki said.
“Hillary isn't perfect, but she's damn near close. She has done an excellent job of coming across as a leader, a serious candidate with real policy solutions and is willing to take pragmatic, if less popular opinions within the party.”
And where was Webb? Grousing that he wasn’t getting as much time as others. And he was right.
We counted so you didn't have to: #DemDebate by the numbers http://t.co/CQhHVmqIFo pic.twitter.com/uEfvAcTkYb — CNN (@CNN) October 14, 2015
Of course, some of that time was spent grousing about not getting enough time.
And some of it was stumbling pauses. Like when he got hung up on the name of daughter No. 3 as he spoke about what his children did.
And he might have wanted to give the time back when he answered a question near the end about who he would consider his enemies. O’Malley said the National Rifle Association. Clinton settled on Republicans.
Webb said it was the North Vietnamese soldier who threw the grenade that wounded him. Webb was awarded the Navy Cross in Vietnam for shielding a fellow Marine from shrapnel.
“But he’s not around right now to talk to,” Webb said with a tight smile. It was a response that was a bit chilling.
Marsh rated Webb’s performance the weakest.
“Sadly, Sen. Webb didn’t articulate his positions well, with the exception of immigration reform,” she said. “The takeaways don’t reflect the person he is and I hope he recognizes that running for president isn’t the best way to influence the process and make an impact on this election.”
Why Clinton won Martha McKenna, a former political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Clinton “exceeded even the extremely high expectations of her tonight. Strong, prepared and tough while being personable and confident.”
Bill Burton, who was a co-founder of the Obama super PAC Priorities USA in 2012 and worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and in the White House, said Clinton “just dominated throughout. There was only one varsity player on that stage.“
Marsh said Clinton was “authentic, strong, compassionate, substantive — the full package. She blew everyone else away.”
Legacki said Clinton’s turning Republican criticism of “big government” forcing paid family leave onto Americans that will force small businesses to hire fewer workers into an attack on Republican “big government” intruding into women’s health issues was “huge.”
“A defining moment for her in the debate and a crystal clear illustration of progressive values in contrast to knee-jerk positions from the Republicans,” Legacki said. “I guarantee we'll be seeing more of that throughout this election.”
What happens in Vegas...is I watch @HillaryClinton prove she's the most qualified candidate for POTUS. #ImWithHer pic.twitter.com/ax1d56Whwt — Bill Clinton (@billclinton) October 14, 2015
What About Joe?
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. continues to consider getting into the race, setting a deadline to decide for the end of the month.
But Marsh said after Tuesday’s debate, “the window is closing fast.”
Burton said, “I would think that the path only gets harder.”
Ridder channeled his inner Biden in thinking through the calculation:
"[Joe Biden] takes a look at this thing, and says, 'There's not enough degrees of separation between myself and others. And I'm not going to add anything to this debate.
“‘I look at Hillary's performance and Martin O'Malley. Bernie will flame out sometime between now and March 15 or around Super Tuesday.
"'Can I wither it? Do I get any votes? Where do I get the votes? Not going to get them from the far left because Bernie will have them for a while. Hillary will have significant strength from women. And this thing's only going to help her.’"
WH: Biden Unaffected by Clinton’s Debate Performance
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