Like Daenerys Targaryen, the warrior queen of Game of Thrones, Hillary Clinton moved in on her opponents Tuesday night, reminding them one by one why she will ultimately rule. All this Khaleesi was missing, it seemed, was her three hungry dragons.
So here’s the question: Was Clinton that good in the CNN debate, or were her opponents just that awful?
She certainly benefited from the comparison. Where Clinton was polished and prepared, the others all came off as comparatively amateurish. As they gave their answers, she stared through them as they avoided her gaze. She threw punches when she thought it was necessary. They, more or less, avoided every opportunity to punch back. She came across as strong. They all looked weak.
Clinton knew when to look in the camera, and when to look at her opponents. And it looked like she was loving every moment of devouring her rivals.
Her main rival, Bernie Sanders, sustained mortal wounds within the first few minutes.
After giving a C- answer about his relatively lax record on gun control, Clinton didn’t waste any time burning him to a crisp.
CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton if Sanders was tough enough on gun violence. Her answer was blunt.
“No,” she said flatly. “Not at all.”
She then blasted the Vermont senator’s votes against the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, which established background checks for buying firearms, and filleted him for backing legislation that protected gun manufacturers over how their products are used.
At one point, Sanders found himself defending and shaking hands with Clinton.
Then there was her cold shaming of Martin O’Malley, who, she noted, endorsed her in 2008. Not that he was much of a foe to begin with. Between his repeated mentioning of the hot, hot—repealed—Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 (which Cooper had to define for 98 percent of the American public watching) and his claim that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad invaded Syria, it was pretty clear that the moment he so desperately needed to become more than an asterisk in the polls did not come.
O’Malley liked to tell stories, particularly about the sufferings of downtrodden black families—some of whom no doubt saw relatives arrested as a result of his “zero tolerance” policy as the mayor of Baltimore in the ’90s. At the start O’Malley talked in a stilted manner reminiscent of William Shatner, and viewers at home could be forgiven for wondering how a politician who inspired a machiavellian HBO character could be so boring.
Still, though, the night wasn’t a total loss for the former governor of Maryland. He seemed chummy in the commercial breaks with Clinton.
So even if O’Malley is far from being the Barack Obama of this cycle, maybe he can still hold out hope of being like 2004 John Edwards, the attractive guy new to national politics who can sweep in and secure the Democratic VP slot. He played that part well Tuesday night—the Hollywood screenwriter’s version of the worthwhile candidate who doesn’t stand a chance of winning.
But let’s not forget about the rest of the invited Democratic field.
There was Lincoln Chafee, the WASPy former Republican with the disconcerting, perhaps Botox-frozen smile. This would have been a good MSNBC audition had he not come across so, well, odd. When asked why he supported the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which quite a few voters see as a cause of the 2008 financial crisis, he insisted that he couldn’t be held accountable because he was new on the job, having just been appointed to finish the Senate term of his late father.
Offstage, he complained about the lack of time he received in comparison to Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley. Given his performance, we may never know what he may have said.
Then there was Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator running far to the right of Clinton and company. He positioned himself as the candidate of working-class whites, his natural demographic, but not a segment of the population Democrats are doing well with.
He looked like a man who hadn’t campaigned since he last ran for office in 2006—because, let’s be honest, he really hasn’t, and whatever points he could score with his war hero record were likely forfeited when he decided to complain at length about his lack of airtime.
But back to Sanders, the avuncular Democratic socialist. When it came to getting money out of politics, he won a lot of applause, though his biggest line of the night was when he defended Clinton on her private email server. But when he was pressed into areas other than economics, campaign finance, and criminal justice, he stumbled—most notably on gun control, but also on foreign policy, where he looked like a candidate desperately trying to remember his talking points.
Sanders would’ve walked away with Tuesday night’s debate if they were fighting over who would be the next congressman from a recently gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood. But on a national stage, his much-praised “authenticity” looked more like a drawback than an asset. His attempts to merge his native New Left worldview with a more modern progressive vernacular came across as awkward—it’s all well and good to “take democracy back from a handful of billionaires,” but what did he really have to say about the social issues that animate the Democratic base today?
Not that much, as it turns out. At times it felt like Sanders tended to fall asleep between questions and was caught stammering when the spotlight returned to him.
Not that Clinton is completely out of the woods—her testimony in front of the Benghazi committee next week will be watched closely by fans and critics alike. And several tranches of State Department emails have yet to be released. There’s no telling whether Clinton did enough Tuesday night to stop her slide in the polls or make voters trust her again.
But this performance was proof positive she is the top of the Democratic field—and if candidates from her party want to take her down, they are going to need a lot more than old, expired legislation and accusations about her cozy relationship with Wall Street to keep her from the Iron Throne.