After enduring months negative publicity over an email controversy that is all smoke and a deeply partisan congressional investigation that is all smokescreen, Hillary Clinton sent a message with her commanding performance in the first Democratic debate: You can throw dirt at me all day, but at the end of the day I am still head and shoulders above each and every challenger, Democrats and Republicans alike . . . and will be the next president of the United States.
And she probably will be.
It would have taken an epic gaffe for Clinton not to emerge from the debate, a format where she always has been at her strongest, as not just the prohibitive favorite to win her party's nomination, but to increase the likelihood of becoming the first woman to sit on the business side of the desk in the Oval Office.
She did not disappoint and was . . . well, spectacular as she stayed determinedly on topic, swept the floor with Bernie Sanders, so completely marginalized Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb that they seemed to be the same guy by the end of the night, and showed a depth of character, breadth of knowledge and command of policy, as well as a pretty wicked sense of humor, that no one can begin to match. This most notably includes the Republican wannabes watching from their Barcaloungers home.
Clinton's greatest vulnerability is a rather dismal foreign policy record (coddling Wall Street interests is a close second), but she even managed to turn that to her benefit in defending her vote to invade Iraq, while evading the question, by noting that President Obama had asked her to serve in his cabinet.
It is way too early for Clinton's supporters to think about getting fitted for inaugural ball gowns. The dirt slingers will intensity their efforts. Sanders is hugely popular among liberals and will try to walk back the damage Clinton did in revealing a gaping hole in an otherwise meritorious platform that includes a ringing endorsement of all that the Black Lives Matter movement stands for. That hole is Sanders' gun debate tone deafness and embrace of gun manufacturers.
While Sanders took it on the chin on guns, he yet again revealed himself to be the rare politician who prefers nobility over pragmatism in refusing to exploit Clinton's greatest perceived vulnerability -- her emails as secretary of state. After Clinton said she made a "mistake" using a private email server and defended her judgment, moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN turned to Sanders.
"Let me say something that may not be great politics," Sanders replied to a standing ovation, "But I think the secretary is right -- and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."
"Thank you!" Clinton said, reaching out and shaking Sanders' hand. "Me, too! Me, too!"
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BASE
It is not too early to marvel at how broad and strong Clinton's base has remained, and once you cut through the fog of conflicting polls and ebb and flow of campaign news, as well as the hyperbole over emails and Benghazi, the much talked-about erosion of support for Clinton has been relatively small.
According to a YouGov survey, 25 percent of Clinton supporters interviewed in May after she announced her candidacy abandoned her over the summer, and some of that loss may have reflected the possibility that some women initially supported her in higher-than-usual numbers because of the prospect of electing the first woman to the White House. But Clinton also picked up nearly half that many voters from her rivals, and most importantly for her, 75 percent of her supporters stood by her despite the negative publicity, the free ride Sanders has gotten from the news media while drawning the largest and most enthusiastic crowds, and noises that Vice President Joe Biden might enter the race.
The voters interviewed by YouGov who left Clinton tended to be young, white, female and college-educated, and of the 25 percent who did so, 15 percent switched their support to Sanders, 6 percent to Biden, and 4 percent went with other candidates or had become undecided. Clinton's greatest strength remains her popularity among blacks and Latinos, and 57 percent of the voters who moved into her camp over the summer were nonwhite.
Beyond Clinton's bravura performance, which was watched by a record number of viewers for a Democratic debate, it was a prime-time opportunity to distance the Democratic Party from the foaming beasts in the Republican sandbox, and all five debaters helped in this collective cause.
Clinton's love of country, although tinged with theatrics, seems genuine, while Republican candidates repeatedly tear the country down. While there certainly are plenty of voters for whom the Democrats' kinder-and-gentler moderate-liberal message is a turnoff, the Democrats talk about real-life issues could not be more different than the Republicans' unwelcoming embrace of divisiveness (blacks, other minorities and especially immigrants need not apply) and extremism (we'll keep shutting down the government because we can). Then there was the general air of comity, if not outright we're-all-in-this-together community during the Democratic debate and the stench of animosity and rampant lying that stank up the first two Republican debates. And will stink up the party's future debates, as well.
There apparently were people who expected Vice President Biden Jr. to descend deus ex machina onto the stage in Las Vegas, stride over to the extra lectern that CNN had helpfully set aside for him just in case, declare that he is a candidate for president and poof! vanquish the fears of jittery Dems.INTRIGUE BECOMES FATIGUE
In a carefully orchestrated series of leaks said to emanate from Biden's inner circle, it was reported -- first by Maureen Dowd of The New York Times some 75 days ago and then by a widening circle of news media heavyweights -- that when the vice president's beloved son, Beau, realized that he would not survive his cancer, he sat down with his father and urged him to wage one more campaign for the White House.
This is what I wrote way back on August 19 in urging Biden, who was a childhood friend, to not run:
"There is no delicate way to put this, so I'll come right out and say it: Joe's prolonged grief has been heart rending, but it may be that some of those advisers are using his grief to advance their own agendas."Since then, reports of Biden's struggle to decide whether to honor Beau's wishes have emanated from his Delaware home, his South Carolina vacation home and even the White House with numbing regularity, and suspense has been replaced by farce.
Beau Biden reportedly told his father that America would be better served by a president with his values. Perhaps, but at this ludicrously late date, we all would be better served by Biden making it clear that he will not be a candidate. He should understand that after watching the debate, because he was the biggest loser of the night.
THE DAUNTING ELECTORAL MATH
Beyond Hillary Clinton's slam-dunk performance and the probability that her road to the Democratic nomination will be straight, if plenty bumpy, from here on out, there is something very big lurking in the shadows that Republican challengers should fear beyond the inevitable rough and tumble nature of the general election campaign: Voter demographics make it nearly impossible for the Republican nominee, no matter who it is, to beat her.
Not even Republican voter suppression efforts are likely to be adequate because there simply aren't enough white males voting Republican to counterbalance the number of black, Latino and other minority voters who will reliably vote Democratic. Clinton, meanwhile, stands an above-average chance of attracting a significant majority of white women, as well as Independents in general.
These demographics mean that Clinton will have secured 246 of the 270 electoral votes needed to become president.
Here is how those 246 electoral votes break down: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), District of Columbia (3), Hawaii (4), New Hampshire (4), Illinois (20), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Maine (4), Minnesota (10), Michigan (16), New York (29), New Jersey (14), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Wisconsin (10) and Washington (12).
That total does not include several swing states, Colorado, Florida and Ohio chief among them. If the Republican nominee wins all three of these states, then all bets are off. But the fact remains that the Democrats' traditional political base remains as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar and although the eventual Republican nominee will be a conservative in moderate drag, the hardcore right-wing tail wagging this flea-infested dog helps to substantially increase the chances that their retaking the Oval Office will be illusory.
Politix Update is an irregular compendium written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his (gasp!) 12th since 1968. Click here for an index of previous Politix Updates.
IMAGE FROM DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR. USED WITH PERMISSION.