Five candidates may have participated in the first 2016 Democratic presidential debate last night, but Hillary Clinton commanded center stage in more ways than one. Flanked by former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, Clinton was poised and at ease, deftly parrying their criticisms and questions from CNN’s moderators. She spoke more than any other candidate, taking more than 30 minutes of air time during the two-hour debate, according to NPR. She reminded voters more than once that she’d be the first woman president, but she also managed to make a substantive case for why she’s best prepared to be the party’s nominee.
Here are five Clinton lines that mattered last night and could still matter as the campaign heats up.
“I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Clinton may have delivered the perfect answer when pressed by CNN's Anderson Cooper to explain why she's called herself both a progressive and a moderate. Her response reassured the Democratic base drawn to Bernie Sanders’ fire that she'll champion the causes that matter to them, but also appealed to centrist voters disgusted by the years-long gridlock in the nation's capital. Clinton managed, at least for the moment, to bat down the premise that she's another politician with her finger in the wind and came away looking both electable and results-oriented.
“I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then-Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.”
Clinton’s answer when challenged on her 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq War showed that, while she has already broken with the president on policy matters such as Syria strategy and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, she’ll also be using his name and adopting his mantle whenever it might benefit her. Asked by Cooper to explain how her presidency would “not be a third term of President Obama,” Clinton embraced Obama’s legacy rather than highlight those policy differences. “Well, there's a lot that I would like to do to build on the successes of President Obama, but also, as I'm laying out, to go beyond,” she said. Her answer showed she should be able to fend off critiques from Republicans looking to tie her to Obama without running away from the president or being defensive.
"It's always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide health care.' They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it."
Asked by CNN’s Dana Bash to respond to those who might say paid family leave is yet another government program created at taxpayer expense, Clinton deftly turned the question around, drawing applause from the Democratic crowd. The passion Clinton showed should resonate with liberals in Sanders’ camp and, combined with her other comments about women, families and the middle class, could help Clinton score points in the general election.
“This [Benghazi] committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise.”
Clinton had stumbled for months in responding to questions about her use of a private e-mail server. “You dismissed it; you joked about it; you called it a mistake. What does that say about your ability to handle far more challenging crises as president?” Cooper pointedly asked. On a national stage, Clinton finally gave a better answer, admitting that “it wasn’t the best choice” and then pivoting to capitalize on Kevin McCarthy’s recent gaffe. Sanders also stepped in to help her, creating the most electric moment of the night and potentially helping to defuse the scandal by saying, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails … Enough of the e-mails! Let's talk about the real issues facing America.”
"I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone."
Clinton’s defense of her slow-developing opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline could come back to haunt her. Expect Republicans to revive this line, much as they hammered John Kerry as a flip-flopper in 2004 for saying he voted for an $87 billion Iraq War funding bill before he voted against it. If Clinton’s line about being a progressive who likes to get things done helped her, this statement gave opponents ammunition and opened her up again to charges that political calculations drive her decisions.