The most telling moment of last night's Democratic debate (full transcript here) came when the party's presumptive candidate, Hillary Clinton, ambled back on the stage late from a commercial break. The moderator had already started to ask Bernie Sanders a question when the crowd erupted in applause upon her entrance, drowning out the query. Clinton offered up a master class in sorry-not sorry, yet again stealing the spotlight even when it's trained on one of her rivals. Whether Clinton's tardiness was accidental or on purpose doesn't really matter. Either way, it was pure showmanship.
Clearly scheduled by the party establishment to minimize their impact, the function of these debates isn't to give Democratic primary voters (and non-Democrats interested in the country's future) a sense of the range and depth of different candidates's views and policies. The function is to provide Hillary Clinton the opportunity to workshop her candidacy, pretend to earn the nomination, reverse her high negative ratings, and finalize the exact compass points of her triangulation strategy in the general election.
Despite being in the national eye for nearly 25 years, Clinton has worked hard not just to "reintroduce" herself to voters via weird burrito runs at Chipotle, but to change and modify her positions to absorb the more popular aspects of Bernie Sanders' surprisingly strong progressive insurgency.
Hence, Clinton was staunchly against gay marriage until it became clear such a position was untenable in today's America, thus completing the one conversion even more obviously political than Barack Obama's switch in the heat of the 2012 election season. A one-time free trader whose president husband sealed the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Clinton recently trashed the Trans-Pacific Partnership after having lobbied for its passage as secretary of state. It's odd as hell that it took her so long to come up with a position on the Keystone XL pipeline, isn't it? Only if you think she has an uncalculated bone in her body. Once upon a time (in 1996's It Takes a Village), Clinton supported charter schools and the concept of parental choice. Sensing the need to wrap up support from teachers unions, she singing a different tune these days.
Never slow to attack illegal immigrants (and even deny them driver's licenses) in the past, she now embraces full amnesty as the Republican Party has gone full into full-restrictionist mode. A strong supporter of TARP and bailing out Wall Street, she nows chants "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes" when asked about letting banks fail. For the most part, she is trying to disown her record as a relentless military interventionist while fudging negligible differences with Obama's foreign policy.
Like both Presidents Bush and Obama, Clinton cannot imagine a world in which the United States is not a global policeman. "If the United States does not lead," she announced during a discussion about ISIS, Syria, and Iraq. "There is not another leader. There is a vacuum." Quick question, not just for Clinton but for virtually all the Republican candidates other than Rand Paul: Are the conflicts in the Middle East mostly attributable to a lack of American involvement in the region over the past 10, 20, and 30 years?
Up by between 20 and 30 percentage points in polls among Democrats, Clinton wisely spent most of her time not debating Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley but laying out broad differences between her and the Republican candidates. She also specifically and repeatedly attacked the current GOP frontrunner, Donald Trump. "From my perspective," she said in her opening statement, "we have to prevent the Republicans from rolling back the progress that we've made. They would repeal the Affordable Care Act, not improve it. They would give more tax breaks to the super-wealthy and corporations, not to the middle class. And they would, despite all their tough talk about terrorism, continue to let people who are on the no-fly list buy guns."
Some of those propositions are more popular than others (gun-control proposals made after mass shootings haven't been successful for a long time), but all speak directly to a Democratic base that has responded warmly to Sanders' populist positions. In going after Trump, Clinton is painting the entire Republican field with a broad brush and setting up the general election as a choice between retrogade reactionaries who divide and attack (them) and a moderate progressive with loads of experience (her). "Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions," she said. She also said that she worries "greatly about the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump."
Polls this early on are next to useless, but it's interesting that Trump is one of the few leading Republicans who polls poorly against Clinton in head-to-head matchups. Nobody understands that better than Clinton and if she can't run against Trump, she obviously wants to run against a Republican Party that voters think has been captured by him nonetheless.
Which still may not be enough to put Clinton over the top in a general election, even if she's running against an empty chair. Fully 60 percent of Americans agree that she is "not honest and trustworthy," and her flip flops over the past months toward Bernie Sanders aren't going to help her on that score.
Nor are gestures like her forced sign-off at last night's debate, when she closed her comments by saing, "May the force be with you." Coming from someone who seems to have absolutely no connection to American pop culture much less basic day-to-day reality (recall her statements about being "dead broke" when leaving the White House), that's like the worst grandma joke of all time.
From a libertarian perspective, Hillary Clinton is not simply a terrible candidate in this election cycle but in any election cycle. She presided over an unrelievedly awful set of foreign-policy fails and remains unbowed in her willingness to restrict the First Amendment when it comes to political and commercial speech. Her recent forays into triangulation notwithstanding, she also has a virtually unbroken record of backing large, powerful institutions on Wall Street over letting market forces determine winners and losers. She is no friend to civil liberties ranging from government surveillance and overreach in the service of the War on Terrorism, the War on Drugs, and more.
It appears all but certain that Election 2016 will offer voters major-party choices between bad and worse. Partisans will slug it over whose candidate is bad and whose is worse while the rest of us play different angles, such as which president might work better as a hedge against single-party control of Congress. In this sense, it's good that we don't have to bother watching the Democratic debates, since it's going to take a lot of effort to figure out which candidate will do less damage from the Oval Office.