Hillary Clinton Won (But It Won’t Always Be This Way)

Front-runner’s performance was as good as it was dishonest.

Sanders and Clinton.
Joe Raedle AFP/Getty
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 13, 2015, 10:47 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton won. She won be­cause she’s a strong de­bater. She won be­cause Bernie Sanders is not. She won be­cause the first Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial de­bate fo­cused on lib­er­al policies—and not her email scan­dal or char­ac­ter.

The em­battled front-run­ner won her­self a news cycle or two, be­cause she stretched the truth and played to a friendly audi­ence. It won’t al­ways be so.

It took more than an hour be­fore CNN’s An­der­son Cooper asked Clin­ton about the cov­ert email sys­tem she es­tab­lished as sec­ret­ary of State in de­fi­ance of fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions, sub­vert­ing the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act, thwart­ing con­gres­sion­al over­sight, and jeop­ard­iz­ing U.S. secrets. And, even then, her chief rival offered Clin­ton cov­er.

“What I did was al­lowed by the State De­part­ment,” said the wo­man who headed the State De­part­ment, “but it wasn’t the best choice.” Clin­ton noted that the GOP-led Benghazi com­mit­tee—the pan­el that dis­covered her rogue email sys­tem—is on re­cord try­ing to un­der­mine her cred­ib­il­ity. GOP par­tis­ans were par­tis­an, and yet, she dra­mat­ic­ally de­clared, “I’m still stand­ing.”

The Demo­crat­ic crowd roared. “I think the sec­ret­ary is right,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont, a pop­u­list threat­en­ing Clin­ton from the left. “The Amer­ic­an people are sick and tired of hear­ing about emails.”

Pro­fes­sion­al Demo­crats and the party’s strongest voters are cer­tainly tired of hear­ing about the email scan­dal, but it’s not go­ing to go away—not with the FBI in­vest­ig­at­ing wheth­er con­fid­en­tial in­form­a­tion was mis­handled un­der Clin­ton’s sys­tem and not with in­de­pend­ent voters los­ing faith in Clin­ton’s word.

Char­ac­ter and judg­ment are gate­way polit­ic­al is­sues. An un­trust­worthy can­did­ate might check all your policy boxes, might tickle your ideo­lo­gic­al but­tons, and might even grind away long enough to get your vote—but you’re not go­ing to like it.

That is Clin­ton’s prob­lem. Like it was in 2008, her char­ac­ter is the is­sue that threatens to con­sume all oth­ers.

The email scan­dal re­calls ques­tions about Clin­ton’s in­teg­rity that go back to the Rose Law Firm/White­wa­ter and the White House Travel Of­fice. Flip-flop­ping on the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship and the Key­stone XL pipeline add weight to the ar­gu­ment made by Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans alike that Clin­ton is a mal­le­able op­por­tun­ist.

There are many people, in­clud­ing me, who know a side of Clin­ton that is strong (2012: “What I Learned Cov­er­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton”) and com­pel­ling (2013: “Best Bet for a Third Clin­ton Term Is if She Runs as the ‘Real Hil­lary’—Warm, Open, and Hon­est”), which makes her ac­tions this year shame­fully in­ept (“Memo to Hil­lary: You’re Still The Prob­lem”).

On the day of the de­bate, two stor­ies un­der­scored Clin­ton’s vul­ner­ab­il­ity.

“A ‘Can­cer’ on the Clin­ton Can­did­acy” by Politico’s Glenn Thrush and An­nie Karni climbs in­side the Clin­ton cam­paign to de­scribe a para­noid can­did­ate with me­diocre polit­ic­al skills re­fus­ing ad­vice of staff to come clean on the email is­sue. “We need to throw the facts to the dogs, and let ‘em chew on it,” seni­or ad­visor John Podesta re­portedly told the can­did­ate. In the deeply re­por­ted story based on in­ter­views with 50 ad­visers, donors, Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives, and friends, Clin­ton’s team ap­pears to throw her un­der the bus.

That’s cer­tainly how Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton in­ter­preted the story, ac­cord­ing to three people who talked to them today. “They’re pissed,” said one.

“How to Beat Hil­lary Clin­ton” by the New York­er’s Ry­an Lizza, fea­tured an Oc­to­ber 2007 memo by aides to then-Sen. Barack Obama sig­nal­ing their suc­cess­ful char­ac­ter at­tack against Clin­ton. She “can’t be trus­ted or be­lieved”; “She’s driv­en by polit­ic­al cal­cu­la­tion”; “She em­bod­ies trench war­fare vs. Re­pub­lic­ans”; “She prides her­self on work­ing the sys­tem not chan­ging it.”

While held in high fa­vor with Demo­crats and lead­ing the field in na­tion­al polls, Clin­ton is strug­gling to build en­thu­si­asm be­hind her nom­in­a­tion bid. On that nar­row cause, she may have helped her­self Tues­day night.

Crisp and firm, Clin­ton chal­lenged Sanders’s elect­ab­il­ity and found cov­er be­hind Pres­id­ent Obama when the sub­ject turned to her sup­port of the Ir­aq War. Not­ing that Obama bludgeoned her with the Ir­aq vote dur­ing their 2008 con­test, Clin­ton said, “He val­ued my judg­ment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situ­ation Room go­ing over some very dif­fi­cult is­sues.”

One of those is­sues, she offered with con­fid­ent non­chal­ance, was killing Osama bin Laden.

In vir­tu­ally the next breath, Clin­ton pushed back against an­oth­er rival, former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, by not­ing dryly, “I was pleased when Gov­ernor O’Mal­ley en­dorsed me for pres­id­ent in 2008.”

She chal­lenged Sanders’s neg­at­ive state­ments about cap­it­al­ism and his em­brace of Den­mark-style so­cial­ism. Pledging to “save cap­it­al­ism from it­self,” Clin­ton said, “We are not Den­mark. I love Den­mark. We are the United States of Amer­ica.” In her bid to raise ques­tions about Sanders’s abil­ity to win a gen­er­al-elec­tion cam­paign, the is­sue was a lay­up.

Sanders faced cri­ti­cism from Clin­ton and O’Mal­ley for vot­ing to pro­tect gun man­u­fac­tur­ers, an is­sue at odds with a Demo­crat­ic base that is lurch­ing left­ward. When Cooper asked if Sanders is tough enough on guns, Clin­ton said, “No, not at all.”

Sanders and O’Mal­ley said Clin­ton isn’t tough enough on trade, not­ing that she only re­cently aban­doned her sup­port of the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship to curry fa­vor with the party’s uni­on friends. Was it a flip-flop? “I did say when I was sec­ret­ary of State three years ago that I hoped it would be the gold stand­ard,” Clin­ton said.

She was mis­quot­ing her­self, adding the “I hoped” caveat. Here’s what she ac­tu­ally said at the time: “This TPP sets the gold stand­ard in trade agree­ments to open free, trans­par­ent, fair trade, the kind of en­vir­on­ment that has the rule of law and a level play­ing field.”

See how she does it? It worked Tues­day night. She won. She sur­vived and won with a per­form­ance that was as dis­hon­est as it was im­press­ive, that be­nefited from a friendly crowd and weak field. When Lin­coln Chafee, the field’s Rhode Is­land cipher, dared to cri­ti­cize Clin­ton on the email is­sue, Cooper asked her if she wanted to re­spond.

“No,” she replied.

The crowd roared.