Popping some popcorn for blue-on-blue attacks tonight? Don’t get your hopes up too high for the first Democratic presidential debate, airing on CNN tonight at 8:30 pm ET from Las Vegas. As Jonathan Martin notes for the New York Times, tonight’s strategy for all five contenders will be to see who can position themselves most firmly on the party’s left wing — and who can sell themselves as trustworthy enough for the base to embrace:
After watching two viscerally divisive debates among the Republican presidential contenders, Americans are about to witness a confrontation by the Democrats that will most likely center on differences of degree, not direction, and on how hard they will push a liberal agenda, not where they hope to lead the nation.
The most telling aspect of Tuesday night’s debate in Las Vegas may be how much the candidates agree on the issues. That could be bad news for CNN, which is hosting the event and is surely hoping for some Republican-style fireworks. But it could also offer insights about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s strategic calculations and about the Democratic Party’s growing confidence.
At this point in the 2008 campaign, the Democratic presidential hopefuls, led by Mrs. Clinton, wrestled with how to appeal to liberal activists without alienating the general election voters who had sent a Republican to the White House in the previous two elections. Now, the Democrats arrive at their first debate focused entirely on how to win over the left.
If the moderators are able to tempt Mrs. Clinton into sparring with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, the arguments will most likely not be waged on substantive grounds. Fissures in the Democratic Party are few. Instead, any tensions or potential attacks would almost certainly involve disagreements about how fervently and sincerely the candidates embrace the progressive cause.
Let’s recall the original coronation strategy. First, Hillary Clinton would have no significant challenge to the nomination, being the obvious and only Next In Line For The Throne. That would allow her to tack to the middle, leaving the Left with the prospect of having to stick with her rather than see Republicans win and move the country farther to the Right. (This will sound familiar to Republicans, by the way.) Hillary would have a huge head start with independents and centrists while the GOP candidates squabbled over their own base’s loyalty.
Thanks to Bernie Sanders and a strong anti-establishment impulse in both parties, that strategy is dead. Hillary needs to promise the moon to the Left to hold off the Sanders charge, and that puts her in a bad position if she ends up with the nomination, especially if a Republican who can reach out to the center emerges as the GOP nominee.
Andrew Malcolm points out that everyone on stage will likely criticize the Obama years as too cautious on progressivism, which will worsen the problem:
You may have noticed pretty much every presidential candidate this cycle — the Gang of Five on the left and the entire posse from Dodge on the right — is calling for major repairs to this country. You expect that from Republicans, whose White House eviction came 81 months ago.
But it’s more of a political predicament for Democrats bemoaning income inequality, stagnant wages, the besieged middle-class, the economy, foreign policy embarrassments and crumbling infrastructure since their guy has been pretending to run the show all this time. …
With 49% of Americans viewing the federal government as an “immediate threat” to their rights and freedoms, you might think Sanders would be politically challenged. But the growly grandpa-like guy seems authentic and has drawn big crowds in cities and on college campuses, calling for major repairs to America by an activist government.
The big question tonight, of course, is how well Hillary Clinton can weather the coming storm. She’s not very good in the debate format, a competitive environment, or in any situation where she has to answer anything but softball questions. She can try to turn the debate from her to the Republicans and hope the rest of her competitors play follow the leader, which I write in The Week is really her only hope of winning tonight:
How can Clinton survive all of these attacks? She’ll have to handle them with grace and good humor, which clearly does not come naturally to her. More importantly, Clinton will have to ignore many attacks, not play too much defense, and pivot to establish some form of authenticity and rebuild trust with voters. People need more of a reason to vote for Clinton than the fact that she wants to be president. They need to have a connection to her that goes beyond her own claims of victimhood by the political process.
Expect Clinton’s opponents to be obsessed with her tonight. But expect Clinton to try and move above and beyond the other Democratic contenders, and instead focus on Republican candidates and their stumbles thus far. You’re going to hear a lot from her about Donald Trump and Ben Carson, for instance, while selling herself as a steady, experienced hand who can take over on Day One. That could allow her to turn this back onto her Democratic opponents, rebuking them for internecine fighting rather than targeting the GOP. That might force the others to turn their guns on Republicans, which would all but guarantee an easy night for Clinton.
To reverse the common political axiom: As long as she’s not explaining, she’s not losing. With her strong standing in the Democratic primaries, not losing tonight will be sufficient. If she can not lose sufficiently, Clinton might even keep Biden from entering the race. And in that sense, not losing would be a big win for Team Hillary.
Likelihood of success in successfully deploying this strategy? Slim to none. When she comes across as haughty and arrogant, she will have lost the debate, and the only mystery will be whether one of the One Percent trio on stage gets a breakout moment that could change the race. If not, expect the Joe Biden announcement by the end of the week.