This was an interesting (though long and protracted) debate where the front runners did most of what they needed to do. Hillary Clinton is better in a debate format that in a lot of venues. The interaction helps her and she appears smart, well-informed, and engaging. She plays well off of others. Toward the end of the debate when she got a question on maternity leave she even showed a flash of Bernie Sanders’ style outrage. And, it became clear over the course of the night that she will increase position herself as an outsider as a woman.

Bernie Sanders was Bernie Sanders, consistent, forthright, and genuine. Going into the debate, I was unsure how he might come across but the fact that is unapologetic about who he is is endearing. He likely “won the debate” with his sound bite on being tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s damn emails. It was a great moment that allowed him – at once – to be generous to an opponent and critical of the news media and Republicans.

Some of his answers may not play well in the long run – embracing democratic socialism, for example, where he seems far outside of the mainstream. The fact that he embraces these answers and uses them as an opportunity to explain his views works well for him. The question remains, however, as to whether it expands his base?

Martin O’Malley did fine but I don’t think we’ll enough. He had an important misstatement on Assad and Syria, though I think he just misspoke. The problem is – he needed to have a home run and he didn’t hit it out of the park. I thought he was at his best when he responded to Sanders saying “we already did that in Maryland.” If his campaign ever took hold, he claim the mantle of a “reformer with results.”

Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were not helped at all by being on the stage.

Finally, I have no idea what Joe Biden will do, but I don’t think this debate opened the door to a presidential run any wider. If Biden was waiting for a sign in the form of a crumbling Clinton campaign, I don’t think he got it.


2015 Democratic Debate Notes


Debating Hillary

Donald Trump may attract more viewers, but the trajectory of the Hillary Clinton campaign is – by far – the most interesting storyline of this campaign.  Hillary Clinton began the 2016 campaign as she did in 2008: A prohibitive favorite with a vast array of organizational and financial resources. The driving narrative of her campaigns has been that she is an inevitable nominee and an electable candidate. When that wears thin, she finds herself on uncertain ground, unsure of who she is as a candidate, or why her campaign matters.

Her difficulty in connecting with voters is often discussed as a matter of trust, but it is really a question of authenticity. We didn’t trust Bill Clinton but we knew who he was and we liked him despite (or because of?) his faults. Her movement to the left this election cycle (relatively to 2008) is symptomatic, her flip on the Trans-Pacific Partnership a case-in-point. The search for what she need to be to get the position she wants.

Bernie Sanders suffers no such problems. He is authentic, challenging the status quo with a Quixotic campaign. He is likable even if we disagree with his positions because he is genuine. It is nearly impossible to imagine him winning the Democratic nomination, but there is no doubt that he has changed the course of the campaign. Voters, he said, will “contrast my consistency and my willingness to stand up to Wall Street and corporations, big corporations, with the secretary.”

The challenge for Hillary Clinton is to use Bernie Sanders as a foil for demonstrating her own authenticity as a person and a candidate and to establish a narrative for her campaign separate from electability and inevitability.


You can acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is smart and talented while also conceding that she is not a very good candidate. While some of her struggles undoubtedly reflect broader culturally engrained gender stereotypes, her most pronounced flaw as a candidate is that she lacks charm. The more she campaigns the fewer people support her.

I say this, by the way, not as a critique but as a fan.  Clinton politics – pragmatic in its aims, fiscally responsible, and moderate in its approach – has great appeal. In another era, Hillary Clinton was and would have remained a liberal “Rockefeller” Republican, committed to liberal social policies and responsible governance.  Her pragmatic moderate politics is no small part of her problem. The Democratic left has never trusted her or, for that matter, embraced the Clinton legacy. Disappointed by the moderation of Presidents Clinton and Obama, they continue to pine for a “true” liberal.  Hillary Clinton is not that candidate.

This is her second time down the road from inevitable juggernaut to vulnerability to crisis mode and, perhaps, defeat.  The problem she confronts is that – as in 2008 – the most powerful arguments for her campaign are electability and inevitability. When that veneer is stripped clean – when she is exposed as electorally vulnerable – her support crumbles.  The comparison to 2008 is instructive. In September 2007, Clinton led President Barack Obama by 21 points (46 to 25). His victory in Iowa gave Democrats the chance to reconsider her candidacy and her inevitability. The decline in her support from over 60 percent to under 50 and the rise in her unfavorable numbers this early in the campaign are causes for alarm.

Her current challenger – Bernie Sanders – is less formidable. Charlie Cook’s assessment of Sanders is spot on: “Has any mem­ber of Con­gress dur­ing the past 23 years been less con­sequen­tial, less ef­fect­ive, and taken less ser­i­ously than Sanders? Is there any Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or less able to win a na­tion­wide gen­er­al elec­tion?” Though one might recall that at the start of 2008, Senator Barack Obama was inexperienced and not well known.

Her current challenge -overcoming her own weaknesses as a candidate while convincing the Democratic faithful that she has more to offer than electability – remains. Worse, as she looks less and less inevitable, the challenge of making a case for her candidacy grows.

Despicable Me: Hillary Clinton’s Challenge Remains


Winning by Losing: The Politics of Running for President When You Have Little Chance of Winning

Watching Governor Bobby Jindal mount a quixotic campaign for president has led many observers – and not just Jindal critics – to question why run at all if you have no chance of winning.  You can ask the same question about any number of growing crowd of Republican contenders from Lindsey Graham to Chris Christie to Donald Trump.  While some of the reasons are deeply personal, there are also more systematic explanations.

First, the more candidates that enter the race – particularly in the absence of a clear frontrunner, the smaller the share of the vote any candidate needs to potentially become viable. In most national polls, Jeb Bush is leading the pack but only has 15-20 percent of the vote. As a potential candidate, you don’t need the ground to shift very dramatically to become competitive.

Second, call it the Obama Effect or the Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Santorum Effect. Many of these candidates remember that: (1) President Obama beat the established, heavily advantaged and overwhelming favorite Hillary Clinton in 2008 to win the Democratic nomination; and (2) In 2012, a number of Republican candidates emerged as the “anti-Romney” candidate for brief flicker of time but none could capitalize on the opportunity. Rick Santorum who got beat by 16-points in his last Pennsylvania Senate campaign managed the strongest and most sustained challenge. Nearly every single announced candidate this go-round is at least as strong as Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum in 2012. Their hope is to catch fire and transition into a major contender.

Third, in politics winning isn’t everything, particularly if you are focused just on the 2016 election cycle. For many of these candidates, their goals are not narrowly focused on a 2016 win but rather to emerge as a future leader of the Republican Party. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal can run in 2036 and still be younger than Hillary Clinton is today. Running now helps to establish an organizational presence, a funding basis for future elections, and establishes them as a potential voice for the Republican Party should Democrats win in 2016.

Fourth, winning the presidency isn’t the only “win” from running a national campaign. Any number of the candidates currently on the campaign trail will likely have cabinet level positions should a Republican win the presidency. If a Republican doesn’t win the presidency, they will be in position for television gigs on Fox News or The Blaze Network, or with national think-tanks like the Heritage Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Family Research Council. As Mike Huckabee has demonstrated, losing a presidential bid is not always a bad career move.

Finally, some candidates run not out of personal ambition but to influence the campaign agenda. The best example here may be on the Democratic side where Bernie Sanders seems unlikely to win the nomination but will almost certainly have a liberalizing impact on the Democratic Party. On the Republican side, this Republican nomination is not just about who wins, but the future direction of the party.

Overall, the question to ask then is not why are they running when they have no chance of winning, but rather what do they hope to gain out of a failed presidential bid? In most cases, there are real tangible benefits to losing a presidential nomination including (but not limited to) improving your chances for the next go around.