Column

Democratic debate a talking-point triumph for Hillary Clinton

Warning to all would-be Democratic presidential challengers: Debate Hillary Rodham Clinton at your own risk. Of all the candidates currently running in either party, Clinton has spent more hours in presidential-level debates than anyone else. She debated Barack Obama more than 20 times in 2008, and even won in some of those contests.

On Tuesday evening, Clinton's long experience showed. She was a virtual talking-point machine, turning nearly every question in the direction of something she wanted to say.

Question: How could she consider herself the right candidate in a year when many voters clearly want an outsider?

"I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president," Clinton said — one of at least four times she reminded the audience that she was the only woman on the stage.

Question: Why doesn't she agree with Sen. Bernie Sanders and others that the country's biggest banks — the ones that might be "too big to fail" — should be broken up?

"The plan that I have put forward would actually empower regulators to break up big banks," she said. "My plan is comprehensive, and frankly, it's tougher." ("That's not true," Sanders instantly replied.)

Question: How can Clinton call herself a progressive when she has historically taken moderate positions — on trade agreements, for example — that are out of sync with the liberal Democratic base?

"I don't take a back seat to anyone when it comes to progressive experience and progressive commitment," she answered crisply. "I'm a progressive, but I'm a progressive who likes to get things done.... I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground, and I've proved that."

That, it turned out, was Clinton's main theme of the evening: that she is indeed a progressive Democrat — not, she insisted, a "moderate."

So Clinton seized every opportunity to trumpet her most progressive positions — her support for paid family leave, sweeping gun control legislation and "a new New Deal for communities of color" — and at the same time downplay the ones (on trade, the Keystone XL pipeline, Wall Street reform) where, at least until recently, she did qualify as a moderate.

And she embraced a role as partisan warrior, as if she were already — or again — the Democrats' presumptive nominee.

Question: Have you made any enemies you're proud of?

"Probably the Republicans," Clinton said.

Sanders, Clinton's closest competitor, turned in a capable performance as well, and, importantly, avoided his occasional weakness of sounding angry.

"The middle class of this country has for the last 40 years been disappearing," Sanders said — his favorite talking point. "All of the new income and wealth that is being created is going to the top 1%." In case anyone missed it, he repeated the point several times during the two-hour debate.

Sanders' main goal in this debate was to introduce himself and his positions to millions of Democrats who haven't heard him speak before, and on that count he was a success.

But it remains to be seen how those newly attentive Democrats will react to Sanders' call for a "revolution" to enact sweeping progressive legislation.

"The only way we really transform America … is through a political revolution when millions of people come together and say our government is going to work for us and not just a handful of billionaires," Sanders said.

The kind of revolution he wants, he explained, was one of activism, in which millions of new voters swarm to the polls.

That drew a wry riposte from former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, one of the lesser-known candidates on the stage. "Bernie, I don't think the revolution's going to come," he said.

It's telling that the Las Vegas crowd warmed most to Sanders when he effectively defended his rival; he received his biggest ovation when he said he did not intend to criticize Clinton over the controversy stemming from her decision to use a personal server for her email when she served as secretary of State.

"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about these damn emails," he said. "Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues."

Was the audience applauding Sanders, Clinton or both? It's hard to say.

The other candidates on stage — Webb, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee — didn't make much of an impression. O'Malley in particular needed a striking moment to define his candidacy, which has languished Sanders' shadow; he didn't have one.

After weeks in which Clinton has spent time parrying criticism over her emails, her fundraising and her poll numbers, the front-runner was given a major national forum to remind voters that she's been a Democrat all her life, and can sound like a progressive when she needs to.

The Democratic National Committee, apparently under pressure from the Clinton camp, has limited the number of debates to six — a mistaken effort to protect the front-runner from harm. If Clinton has any sense, she'll write a letter tomorrow morning demanding six more.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @DoyleMcManus

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