Hillary Clinton was vulnerable at the debate Saturday night and could have been taken down a notch if she’d had formidable opponents on the stage.
But she didn't. They didn’t. And that leaves the race pretty much exactly where it is—give or take a few percentage points.
Yet that doesn’t mean she’s totally off the hook.
During the course of the two-hour debate, Clinton made a series of gaffes that will likely come back to haunt her, should she become the nominee, in the form of substantive attack ads and cheap shots.
She stumbled a bit when talking about the war she championed in Libya, and her refusal to use the phrase “radical Islam”—as well as her claim that it was her work during 9/11 that led to her massive Wall Street contributions—will likely find its way into a GOP attack ad at some point. Not to mention her odd boast that she “comes from the ’60s” (paging Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz).
But Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley just couldn’t capitalize on the mistakes—and it’s not that they didn’t try. They were out-practiced, out-foxed and generally just not a match for the Democratic frontrunner.
The debate didn’t start out well for Bernie, which isn’t surprising considering it was all about terrorism and foreign policy, the two areas where Clinton’s advantages in terms of experience are most striking.
It seemed that Sanders could sense he was out of his element, that he’d been caught flat-footed, when he was asked about the terrorist attack in Paris. He condemned the atrocity and pledged to “rid the world of ISIS” with the help of the rest of the world, and immediately pivoted back to his safe zone: Super PACs! “Millionaires and billionaires”! Climate change!
His answer to the Paris question came out so disjointed it was almost a non-sequitur, and it did nothing tonight to rebut the notion that he’s more of a left-wing protest candidate than a serious contender for Commander-in-Chief.
For her part, Clinton’s answers about foreign policy were not exactly stellar. Several served as a reminder why the breadth of her experience—her time in the White House, the Senate, and running the State Department—has tended to cut both ways.
Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton a pointed question about whether her policy in Libya failed to take into account the lessons from the war in Iraq—i.e., to answer the question, 'Do we have an answer for the day after?”
Clinton defended the operation, maintaining there was a plan, but just that it fell apart because, well, the Middle East.
“The Libyans turned out for one of the most successful, fairest elections that any Arab country has had. They elected moderate leaders,” she said, offering up a half-hearted defense of a conflict she once tried to own. “Now, there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble as they have tried to deal with these radical elements which you find in this arc of instability, from North Africa to Afghanistan.”
Dickerson then turned to O’Malley to ask if someone with no foreign policy experience could be Commander-in-Chief. The former Maryland governor basically gave a rambling answer that amounted to ...no.
Sanders, meanwhile, never really hit his stride. Even when the debate finally turned to Wall Street and financial-sector regulation, an area he’s has focused on throughout his career, he quickly got tripped up.
It started when Clinton insisted that Wall Street fears her despite the fact that she’s been a major beneficiary of Wall Street’s largesse. Sanders said her promises to stand up to the financial sector simply weren’t “good enough.”
Then he started hammering away.
“They expect to get something,” Sanders said of the Wall Street donors backing Clinton. “Everybody knows that. Once again, I am running a campaign differently than any other candidate. We are relying on small campaign donors, 750,000 of them, 30 bucks a piece. That's who I'm indebted to.”
Backed into a corner, Clinton came out guns blazing, putting Sanders in his place while also—in another move that will likely come back to haunt her—invoking 9/11 to explain away her ties to Wall Street. First she said that Sanders had used his answer to “impugn” her “integrity,” a charge that left Sanders visibly uncomfortable.
And Clinton had an easy applause line at the ready: 60 percent of her donors, she said, are women.
Then came the perhaps ill-advised invoking of September 11th.
“I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” Clinton said. “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is.”
At least that line of defense was a novel one. Expect to hear more about it in Republican candidates’ stump speeches.
Later, a Twitter user seemed more capable to land a punch by asking: “I've never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”
Clinton, who appeared momentarily flustered by the question, responded, “Well, I'm sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. So, yes, I did know people.”
In a way, no one had a particularly good night on Saturday. Sanders and O’Malley are still very unlikely to close the gap with the frontrunner despite a series of own goals from Clinton.
But given her advantages in the polls, in infrastructure, in cash, in support from the party, Sanders and O’Malley needed to really bring it to this second Democratic debate.
The next time these candidates share a stage—assuming no one drops out by then—is more than a month away.
It was perhaps the best chance that Clinton’s opponents had to differentiate themselves from her on a national stage, to show that they really were plausible contenders for the nomination and the presidency.
And so it represented another missed opportunity for two campaigns that are quickly running out of chances.