Clinton shines in first Democratic debate

Clinton gave a commanding performance, deflecting criticism and defending the middle class.
Clinton gave a commanding performance, deflecting criticism and defending the middle class. AP

Hillary Clinton was a head shorter than her rivals when they lined up on stage for Sheryl Crow’s version of the National Anthem at Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. But after that, she towered over them.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley was preachy and self-righteous.

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb complained he wasn’t getting time to talk.

Former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee was more quirky spectator than participant.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont shouted as if he were unaware of his microphone.

Clinton was fluid, steady and calm.

After Sanders and Chafee criticized her 2003 Iraq vote, Clinton replied: “Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then-Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state.”

When O’Malley criticized her for being too quick to use the military, Clinton responded: “You know, I have to say, I was very pleased when Governor O'Malley endorsed me for president in 2008, and I enjoyed his strong support in that campaign.”

She refused to allow CNN moderator Anderson Cooper and her rivals to get under her skin. She scored points on key Democratic issues and deflected criticism of her changing views. She turned Cooper’s question about her email into the highlight of the night.

While repeating that her private email server was a “mistake,” she said the House committee that exposed the issue was “a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers.” She added: “I am still standing.”

Sanders leaped to her defense. “I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” he said.

Chafee criticized Clinton’s “ethical standards.”

Asked if she wanted to respond, Clinton replied: “No.”

Vice President Biden, if he is still pondering a run, would find the rationale for his candidacy diminishing.

A month ago she was “plunging” in the polls. Sanders was gaining, the draft-Biden movement was in full force, and Republicans were anticipating her grilling by the House Benghazi committee.

But a mass shooting in Oregon put the gun-friendly Sanders on the defensive. The Obama administration’s completion of a Pacific trade deal puts Biden on the wrong side of the Democratic electorate on a prominent issue. The House Benghazi panel has been discredited by McCarthy’s admission that the committee was created to damage Clinton politically. Now polls show Clinton expanding her lead.

Cooper captured Sanders big problem when he said: “The Republican attack ad against you in a general election – it writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist.”

Sanders did not help himself by talking about Denmark’s economic example and saying that he’s “gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what Democratic socialism is.”

Replied Clinton: “We are not Denmark. … We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system. But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history of the world.”

He defended socialism; she defended the middle class. The other men on the stage didn’t look presidential; she did.

Dana Milbank writes for the Washington Post.