No one can deny that Hillary Clinton is a woman of innumerable talents, but her performance at the first Democratic presidential debate was impressive even by her standards. Clinton was comfortable, poised and assertive. She spoke like a leader, had a commanding presence and used a tone that inspired the same hope that her former rival Barack Obama had so successfully elicited. Despite her campaign’s hardships in these past months, Clinton enumerated the issues of concern with a fiery passion, addressed her “scandals” and skillfully turned rhetorical attacks by her competitors into comments that boosted her image. Bernie Sanders, beware: Hillary Clinton came to win.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, charisma is “the rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.” Without charisma, presidential candidates are left at a sincere disadvantage. Charisma is basically like paprika: You can do without it, but almost everything is better with it. Some candidates have so little that they have to put an exclamation mark after their name (yes, Jeb, I’m talking to you), while others have built an enormous following based on personality (I’m thinking of a candidate whose name rhymes with Chump). Clinton has charisma, but not the charisma that a certain Sanders provides. If presidential primaries were personality contests, Donald Trump would without question be the Republican nominee and Sanders would overthrow Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
So to win the first debate (and hopefully the nomination), Clinton chose not to act charismatic — she chose to act presidential. She hit several home runs in her debate performance by talking about the issues of concern: gun control, healthcare, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights … the list goes on and on. Clinton single-handedly named all the issues listed above, along with many more.
This stands in stark contrast with her main rival Bernie Sanders, who truly sounded like a one-sided coin by seemingly focusing only on economic inequality. Yes, income inequality is a tremendous issue and perhaps one of the greatest issues America faces today, but it isn’t the only issue. Sanders sacrificed so much vital air time repeating his same message about economic inequality that it appeared as if he ignored all the other pertinent issues on the table. Clinton, on the other hand, came off as having recognized that there are countless issues that need to be addressed and did a successful job at enumerating most of them. Although she has recently had significant trouble proving to voters that she understands their daily problems, she triumphed in convincing the American public that she recognizes the issues they face. No doubt, she presented that certain je ne sais quoi that defines a president.
Clinton also addressed her so-called “scandals” and played with her competitors’ rhetoric as if not only to challenge their arguments but also to show her logical agility and poise. Some may wonder why her scandals are truly in fact “scandals.” I’ll let Hillary explain: “It [is] unfair not to look at the whole picture; the [Benghazi] Committee is in fact an arm of the Republican National Committee; it is a partisan vehicle … attempting to drive down my poll numbers,” she said. When the audience heard this, people stood up and applauded. As for her emails, she said, “Tonight I don’t want to talk about my emails, but rather what the American people want from the next president of the United States.” This elicited another strong round of applause from the audience. It is not often that a politician can so cleverly turn a scandal into a topic worth applauding, but she did just that. And talk about the issues the candidates did: Instead of focusing on deliberate ad hominem attacks by Republican leadership, they talked about issues of substance, which not only benefited Clinton but also the American public.
Yet that wasn’t the only force that helped propel Clinton to the top: It was also her leadership demeanor and presidential attitude that allowed her to deflect her competitors’ attacks. When Lincoln Chafee called into question her supposed rush to make military judgments, she responded by saying, “After the election, [Barack Obama] asked me to become Secretary of State; he valued my judgment and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room making difficult decisions.” When Martin O’Malley challenged her military interventions, she said, “You know, I have to say, I was very pleased when Governor O’Malley endorsed me for president in 2008, and I enjoyed his strong support in that campaign.” In response to Sander’s comments that we could learn from economic policies in countries like Denmark, Clinton remarked, “But we are not Denmark … We are the United States of America, and it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.” When her credibility and her ostensible inclination for political expediency were called into question, she said, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive that likes to get things done.” Undoubtedly, it was her ability to deflect attacks and use her opponents’ words against them as well as her use of pithy one-liners that helped create a memorable performance and convey an image of a capable, energetic, astute and ambitious leader.
Clinton, however, also demonstrated the ability to restrain herself but fight when necessary. She came out on the offense against her main rival Sanders in a way that was never seen before. For months, Clinton and Sanders barely even mentioned each other, let alone attack each other on national television. However, Clinton came with an aggressive game plan, a game plan to win. This mentality was underscored when Clinton challenged Sanders’ vote against gun control in Congress. When asked, “Is Sanders tough enough on guns?” Clinton responded “No, not at all … Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady Bill … I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn’t that complicated to me.” This direct criticism of Sanders caused serious damage. Sanders claimed that he voted against the gun control bill due to the fact that he represented rural voters. However, it was sloppy debating, as it ruined the image he was trying to cultivate for himself of a man of pure principle. Rather, Clinton made Sanders appear extremely vulnerable to external political forces. Sanders was left stunned, almost as if to say: “Et tu, Hillary?”
Ultimately, this election cycle is particularly exciting. The televised debate received nearly 16 million views, which is the largest viewership for a Democratic primary debate ever. We are, in fact, witnessing history in the making. Hillary Clinton has presented to us, in this first debate, the person she truly is: an individual willing to fight hard for the oppressed, to struggle to promote equality and to present us with a sense of self-righteousness and trust in government. We are that much closer to saying for the first time: Madam President.