Clinton stands her ground on foreign policy, healthcare and taxes.
MANCHESTER, N.H. (Talk Media News) – Most Americans were enjoying holiday parties, catching up on last-minute shopping or watching the first Saturday night NFL game of the season, but those who tuned into the last Democratic debate of 2015 caught an early glimpse of the general election campaign Hillary Clinton intends to run.
Bernie Sanders may command a narrow lead in the Granite State, but his insurgent candidacy finds itself in unfamiliar territory as Clinton begins to hit her stride.
Saturday night’s gathering – the third televised debate for this year’s narrow field – found the Vermont Senator on defense from the start, forced by ABC News host David Muir to explain a recent incident in which campaign staffers improperly accessed confidential voter information files belonging by the Clinton campaign.
“David, let me give you a little background,” Sanders began.
He portrayed DNC contractors as sloppy when it comes to managing critical data and he noted that Clinton campaign data was accidentally turned over to Sanders staffers before. Sanders tried to advance the narrative of a punitive DNC, a party betting on Clinton and eager to castigate him publicly over the most recent incident instead of handling matters quietly.
Sanders eventually ditched that argument and accepted Muir’s invitation to apologize to Clinton. He apologized and the topic was not revisited.
It was a far cry from the first debate in mid-October when Clinton was immediately quizzed by Anderson Cooper on her past flip-flops, and was enduring a fever pitch of media scrutiny over her the handling of her State Department emails.
Yet Clinton did more than not apologize tonight. She showed a newfound willingness to push back against Sanders, a sign of comfort with the ideological lane into which she’s settled. While Sanders nudged Clinton to the left for months, she is now displaying a far greater certainty about her strategy, be it in defining America’s role in the world or defending her Wall Street relations.
Sanders may yet increase his support nationally and in New Hampshire, but the limits of his campaign are now apparent and Clinton is shifting away from her defensive posture.
The third candidate on Saturday night’s stage also failed to dent Clinton’s sense of inevitability.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was characteristically feisty, lashing out at Sanders and Clinton for their brief (and surprisingly cordial) handling of the recent data breach.
“For crying out loud!” O’Malley said, invoking the San Bernardino attacks and urging the audience to reject the “normal politics of Washington” typified by his opponents and to instead follow his “high-minded” politics. He delivered the line with zeal but squandered a critical early chance to flesh out his “politics of a higher purpose,” and he only managed to depict a contrived kitchen table debate on “economic issues” before giving a shout-out to his website.
O’Malley later defied moderator Muir and succeeded in prolonging a heated discussion on gun control. But in drawing breathless contrasts with both frontrunners, O’Malley mostly muddied the differences between Clinton and Sanders and struggled to define his brand.
To close a sparring session on Syria in which Sanders and O’Malley advocated that regime change should be dealt with after the Islamic State, Clinton stood firm.
“If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader,” she said. “There is a vacuum.”
On paid leave and single payer health care reform, Clinton deftly recast two of Sanders’ most popular talking points, criticizing his means of funding the programs:
“And my analysis is, that you are going to get more taxes out of middle class families.”
Sanders appealed to the decency of the Democratic base and argued that enacting three months paid family and medical leave would cost each American just $1.61 per week, but the damage was done.
She’s taken what she wants from the Sanders platform and is now signaling him to back off.
Clinton spiked the football by repeating her ‘no new middle class taxes’ pledge, and in so doing let us in on her first major warmup for a general election.
It just so happened most of America wasn’t watching.