This week’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas did nothing to shake up a presidential race that which has been startlingly stable since Labor Day, when voters supposedly get over summer flings and turn to more serious candidates. Hillary Clinton’s performance was widely praised—according to Political Wire, the New York Times called her “commanding,” and the Los Angeles Times analysis similarly said she “exuded a sense of command” —and her gradual decline in national polls seems to have reversed itself even before Tuesday. (The Real Clear Politics average had her as low as 40.4 percent on Sept. 24, but as of Wednesday she was back up to 43.3 percent, for an 18-point lead over Bernie Sanders.) On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s has lost ground to Ben Carson, but no one who has ever held elective office is yet safely above 10 percent.
“I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” Mrs. Clinton boasted at the debate, echoing the early Republican frontrunner in 2000: George W. Bush, who fought off John McCain’s “maverick” campaign by calling himself “a reformer with results.”
Mrs. Clinton is counting on the Democratic Party’s pendulum to swing back to an appreciation of experience and knowledge of how to work the hidden levers of power in Washington. President Barack Obama is still highly popular in his party, but many Democrats feel that his rhetoric about transcending the blue-state/red-state divide long ago reached the limits of effectiveness. (The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart: “One reason Hillary couldn’t beat Obama in 2008 was that after George W. Bush, she didn’t seem to be offering big enough change. But now that she’s running to succeed a president most Democrats like, her inside-the-system, incremental approach enjoys more appeal.”)
If Mrs. Clinton wants to run as a true maverick, she could complete the reformist circle and call for the return of earmarks, those little bits of federal spending once doled out to individual members of Congress as a price of getting more important legislation passed, but I doubt she’s that brave.
The frontrunner is also hoping for a pendulum swing back toward a “Democrats can be tough too” approach to foreign policy, eight years after Mrs. Clinton struggled to defend her 2003 vote authorizing military intervention in Iraq under the second President Bush. (Joe Biden, the vice-president and potential candidate, was on the same side, another reason he’s really no threat to Mrs. Clinton.) On Tuesday Mr. Sanders kept returning to that vote and criticized Mrs. Clinton for supporting a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in war-torn Syria, but he also said somewhat defensively that he wasn’t a “pacifist” and noted his support for American military intervention in Kosovo under President Clinton and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. It seems unlikely that a more hawkish image will hurt Mrs. Clinton this time around; she probably won’t need to revive her 2008 campaign commercial about being the best person to answer the phone in the White House if a foreign-policy crisis erupts at 3 a.m.—at least not in the Democratic primaries.
There were some dissents from the strong reviews for Mrs. Clinton’s debate performance. Nate Silver wrote that she “gave about the performance that might reasonably have been expected from a frontrunner who gained a ton of experience as a debater during the 2008 Democratic primary: pretty good. Poised, polished and highly competent at appealing to various segments of the Democratic electorate. But also risk-averse and without all that many high notes.” He added, “Clinton didn’t have anything to come back from; she was winning the nomination race before last night’s debate—by a lot.”
The National Review’s Jim Geraghty scoffed at the idea that Mrs. Clinton is any different from “Socialist pander bears” like Mr. Sanders, writing “The audience in Nevada applauded higher taxes [and] believes…Obamacare benefits should be extended to illegal immigrants. There are kindergarten classes with more realistic assessments of cost-benefit tradeoffs than the crowd watching this debate at the Wynn Las Vegas.” Mr. Geraghty may well share the belief of many supporters of Mr. Sanders: the Democrats won’t be fooling anyone with a candidate who claims, as Mrs. Clinton did, that she wants to preserve “a great entrepreneurial nation,” even if “what we have to do every so often in America…is save capitalism from itself.” Next to Mr. Sanders, “save capitalism from itself” sounds like a reasonable alternative to revolution, but in a general election will the phrase stick to her in the same way “spread the wealth around” and “you didn’t build that” hurt Mr. Obama’s efforts to come off as someone who could work with both political parties?
And Mrs. Clinton surely benefited from her rivals’ reluctance to go after her too harshly on Tuesday. (Mr. Sanders also helped her by permanently affixing the dismissive word “damn” in front of “emails,” referring to the investigation of her private email server when she served as secretary of state—his irritation briefly making him and Mrs. Clinton appear as fed-up parents finally telling their teenage son, debate moderator Anderson Cooper, to shut up.) She wasn’t pressed on how much the federal minimum wage should be raised, and she got away without giving any specifics on how she would be different from President Obama, other than her status as the first woman president. (“I think that’s pretty obvious.”) She gave a shout-out to Planned Parenthood but was not asked to elaborate her views on abortion, once a vigorously debated issue in both parties. (See “Pro-Life Democrats and the Catholic Church: 21 Questions for Kristen Day,” by Sean Salai, S.J., on America’s In All Things blog.)
And even before the debate, Vox’s Julia Azari was skeptical of Mrs. Clinton’s efforts: “It’s unlikely that even the most personable, eloquent president will be able to change the ideological outlook and commitments of congressional Republicans. So it doesn’t matter what the candidates say tonight. It won’t happen.” (One could say the same about the GOP presidential candidates; almost by definition, any Republican who could win a national election would be too much of a squish to be trusted by the House members from overwhelmingly Republican districts. So, say, Jeb Bush’s “repeal and replace” plan for the Affordable Care Act would not necessarily get a warm reception in a Republican caucus interested only in the first part of that phrase.)
Does that mean this week’s Democratic debate is ultimately a lot less important than the interminable race for Speaker of the House?