The 3rd Democratic Presidential Debate was not as much a proper debate as it was a mild sparring event for presumed candidate Hillary Clinton. In previous years, primaries have often served to bring candidates’ weaknesses to the forefront and have thus made them more formidable contenders in the general election. Not only because the best defenses against a number of attacks can be tried out during the early stages of a campaign, but also because these same issues are then already known to most voters by the time the campaign goes into its critical stage and have lost much of their potency to hurt the candidate.
In 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency after a historic battle with Hillary Clinton that forced him to explain a range of issues regarding his policy positions, his background in Chicago politics, and his relationship to controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright.
However, the debate between Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley, saw the three candidates implicitly agreeing with each other most of the time, while many contentious issues were left aside.
For Hillary Clinton the questions arises, how she will deal with a much more aggressive contender from the Republican side, once she has wrapped up the nomination.
With her long record in public service, Clinton has weighed in on many controversial issues over the years and Republicans will find plenty points of attack. Especially in the area of foreign policy she could be vulnerable, despite her undeniable competence. During her time in office, the Obama administration attempted a reset of US relations with Russia that has turned out less than successful. US intervention in Libya hasn’t led to a more stable situation there, and the one victory that she should be able to take credit for, was claimed by John Kerry with the completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Any Republican candidate, fairly or not, will surely try to pin these developments on Clinton as a direct consequence of her time in the State Department.
Furthermore the debating style will change, once the general election is underway. It is likely that whoever becomes the Republican nominee, will have learned a thing or two from Donald Trump’s successes early in the campaign. Even if Trump eventually does flare out, it is unlikely that Clinton will face an opponent who just sticks to the facts and adheres to the rules of civilized political debate. Republican voters quite clearly have embraced the bullying style of Mr Trump and it might be tough for a professional politician like Clinton to adjust to a line of attack that is far less predictable and a lot more emotional than she is used to from sparring with Sanders and O’Malley.
Sure, Sanders could pull of a few early primary successes, and turn the nomination into a real contest. But given Clinton’s lead in the polls and her vastly superior campaign operation, this is an unlikely proposition at best. Despite the fact that a real primary fight can’t appeal to her after it went so wrong for her in 2008, it might actually be something that the Clinton camp should hope for.