WASHINGTON — I repeat: Unless she’s indicted, Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination. I wrote that six weeks ago, amid fevered dreams of a Clinton collapse and a Joe Biden rescue. That those were a mirage is all the more obvious after Tuesday’s debate. The reason, then as now, is simple: Clinton has no competition.
She’s up against three ciphers and one endearing, gesticulating, slightly unmoored old man. If Joe Biden was ever thinking of getting into the race, he’d be crazy to do so now. It’s over.
Indeed, even before the debate, Clinton’s numbers had stabilized. It began with Kevin McCarthy’s gaffe of the decade. That gave her a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card that she adroitly deploys whenever the email issue arises. Her technique is flawless: a few meaningless phrases about having made a mistake, taking responsibility and being transparent, blah blah, followed by (I paraphrase) “but look at the larger picture, even Kevin McCarthy admits it’s a partisan witch hunt.” QED.
At the debate, Bernie Sanders sealed the deal with a thunderous “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” That rendered the issue officially off-limits to all Democrats. File closed. End of story. Of course, it will be featured in the general election, but we’re talking here about her getting the nomination.
In gratuitously granting her absolution, Sanders garnered points for high-mindedness. But he’d already cornered the high-mindedness market. Sanders was right to call this move dumb politics. His declaration simply and definitively conceded the race to Clinton. Leo Durocher said nice guys finish last. Sanders will finish second, which in this case is the same thing.
Clinton won the debate because it didn’t change the dynamic. It froze the race and she’s far in the lead. It doesn’t matter that her lead has shrunk from 50 points to 20. Twenty points is a landslide.
She remains a lousy candidate but she is an excellent debater — smart, quick, strategic and extremely practiced. Eight years ago she debated Barack Obama 25 times. Tuesday night, she successfully bobbed and weaved and pivoted. She was at her most impressive, however, when she whacked Sanders upside the head — twice — right out of the box. He didn’t know what hit him.
At the very start, she attacked from the left on gun control, from the right on capitalism. She simply said the magic words — small business, too? — and he beat an unsteady retreat. In general, Sanders was wild and wavy and loud and not very nimble. After all, how much practice do you get when for 35 years you’ve been campaigning as a social democrat in Vermont, America’s Denmark?
Sanders is good on an empty podium taking on invisible billionaires. Put him up against a Clinton and he’s lost.
He did make history of a sort, however. Every debate has its moment — the sound bite that lives forever (or until the next debate, whichever comes first). His “damn emails” thunderbolt is the first such immortal line to be delivered by one candidate that seals victory for another.
The other three candidates hardly registered. Lincoln Chafee, currently polling at 0.3 points (minus-10 Celsius), played Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, who opened his vice presidential debate with: “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz came out a winner. She insisted, despite the squawking of Martin O’Malley and others, on no more than six debates. Who needs the other five? Tuesday night settled the issue. When there’s a knockout in the first round, you stop the fight.
This is not to say that by objective standards — i.e., against minimally competent competition — Clinton did so brilliantly. After all, to prepare the ground and pre-empt any attack from the left, she preceded the debate with a supremely cynical abandonment of both the Keystone XL pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which as secretary of state she’d pronounced “the gold standard” of trade deals.
It did smooth her debate night. But by so transparently compounding her inauthenticity problem, the flip-flops will cost her in the general election.
But that’s for later. Right now, game over. Amid the playacting between today and Clinton’s coronation next summer, we can joyfully savor the most delightful moment of the debate, when we were reminded by Anderson Cooper that Sanders had honeymooned in the Soviet Union.
Springtime for Brezhnev in Yaroslavl. Attention: Mel Brooks.
(c) 2015, The Washington Post Writers Group