The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 34-
- Who won the Democratic debate?
- Can anyone beat Hillary — and if so, how?
- Potentially wild election in Louisiana this Saturday.
Dem Debate: There has been some controversy about who won the Democrats’ first presidential debate. In reality, the outcome was uncontroversial.
The debate’s verdict: Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley don’t really want it enough to become the Democratic nominee for president. And Lincoln Chafee might want it enough, but he’s too hapless to have any hope of pulling it off.
This is the most important lesson from last Tuesday’s Democratic debate. Yes, Hillary Clinton won, but it’s important to understand why she won. She dominates the Democratic presidential field because Democratic voters have deluded themselves about her chances in a general election, and no viable Democratic candidate (at least so far) is willing to cure their delusions. Not one of them is willing to go all the way by making her ethical baggage, high unfavorables, and consequent unelectability the main issue in the Democratic primary.
It’s the Democrats’ loss, and quite possibly the Republicans’ enormous gain. Consider for a moment how poorly she polls against Republicans in comparison to Vice President Joe Biden.
Example: The latest FOX News poll has her trailing Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, whereas Biden leads them all. PPP Has her trailing every Republican in Pennsylvania except Bush. Another poll has her trailing every Republican but Trump in the all-important state of Virginia, and Biden leading all comers. Another has her trailing Bush and Rubio in Florida, and Biden leading both. Another has her trailing All Republicans except Trump in Ohio, and Biden beating all of them except Carson.
Quinnipiac has Clinton with negative net favorable ratings in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Biden’s ratings, on the other hand, are positive in all three. Clinton is overwhelmingly (between 59 and 61 percent) perceived as dishonest and untrustworthy in all three of these swing states. Biden is overwhelmingly viewed as honest and trustworthy in all three.
But even Biden cannot benefit from this dose of reality unless he is willing to administer it to a Democratic electorate that has bought its own propaganda on Clinton’s chances. Unless he is willing to turn the screws as hard as possible on Hillary with this issue of integrity and honesty, he might as well not waste his time by running, because he won’t get past the primary.
The point here is not that Hillary Clinton cannot win. Republicans assume that Donald Trump will not receive the GOP nomination. If he does, then perhaps she can win.
But for a Democratic candidate running against Clinton, the fact of Clinton’s weakness — borne out in so many polls — is an indispensable weapon. Lincoln Chafee offered a weak version of the argument that must be made by the successful anti-Clinton. It happened well into the debate, when Anderson Cooper pointed out that in contrast the other candidates, Chafee had said that Clinton’s scandals were “a huge issue.” He asked Chafee to defend the statement, and the bumbling former Rhode Island governor replied:
Absolutely. We have to repair American credibility after we told the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, which he didn’t. So there’s an issue of American credibility out there. So any time someone is running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue out there with the world. And we have repair work to be done. I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president. That’s how I feel.
That’s the basic idea: Character counts — or at least, perceived character counts — for the person who serves as president.
To build on this idea, the successful anti-Clinton Democrat must say something like the following:
“Yes, we are tired of hearing about her damned emails. But you know what? If we nominate her, that’s all we’re going to be talking about until next November. That’s because she showed poor judgment and now she and her aides are under investigation not just by Congress, but by the FBI.
“If Secretary Clinton gets the nomination, we won’t be talking about income inequality, or raising the minimum wage, or the gender pay gap, or climate change, or any of those other things over the next year. Thanks to her poor decisions, we’ll be talking about Clinton scandals right up until election day. Our party shouldn’t have to suffer through that, and it doesn’t have to. Nominate someone who has shown character and won’t be burdened by such distractions.”
That’s the winning formula, but Clinton’s Democratic rivals don’t have to stones to invoke it. For them, it’s a shame. For Republicans, it’s a lifeline. A candidate perceived as untrustworthy by 60 percent of the electorate (as multiple polls suggest) could conceivably win, but the odds are not in her favor. And she’s certainly not likely to get the benefit of the doubt from voters at crucial moments.
Clinton’s disingenuous behavior on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — she flagrantly lied about her new position (against it) during the debate, then backtracked on that position after she had “won” the debate — just reinforces her problem. As CNN’s Anderson Cooper put it in a question to her, Clinton will quite literally say anything to win. This perception of her dishonesty is out there, and it isn’t going to serve her well during a long campaign.
Jeb: Jeb Bush has money, and a surname that helps but also serves as a double-edged sword. But this head-to-head poll between him and Marco Rubio, conducted by YouGov, should make him lose sleep.
Bush shares several things with Rubio in terms of his base of support. Floridians and Hispanic Republicans are supposed to be fans of both, as are all Republicans not completely incensed by the whiff of “the establishment.” In a head to head between the two, Rubio seems to check the boxes for more than twice as many Republican voters.
This is something to keep in mind as Jeb and Rubio pick minor fights with one another. Rubio may lag in fundraising and overall prominence, but Republican voters would much sooner nominate him than Jeb Bush.
Kentucky: A bit odd for Matt Bevin, R, to tout a poll that shows himself slightly behind Democrat Jack Conway, D, just before the election. Typically, this is a sign of an impending loss, and Bevin’s lackadaisical approach to the race adds credence to that view.
But of course, the polls were so dramatically wrong in Kentucky last November that one could justifiably wonder whether they don’t at least slightly underestimate Republican chances in the Bluegrass State this time around as well. All Bevin would need to win is a small boost ahead of where he’s polling now. Leaning Democratic retention.
Louisiana: Everyone went to sleep on this race for about a year. Then suddenly this month, three different polls show Sen. David Vitter, R, trailing in an expected runoff against Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards. Given that primaries are far more likely to defy polling, the finish to this race ought to be an exciting one. It takes place Saturday, October 24.
If you want the most likely outcome, it is still a late November runoff between Vitter and Edwards, D. But frankly, it’s hard to feel much certainty in a four-man field where undecided voters and late jitters about Vitter abound.
The first round of voting could produce almost anything, especially given that primaries tend to defy the polls much more easily than general elections. A crazy near-tie with three or four top candidates finishing in the low-to-mid-20s is not out of the question. Nor is a runoff between two Republicans, though it is quite unlikely.
The latest Baton Rouge Advocate poll showed Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, both Republicans, at 14 and 15 percent, respectively, behind Vitter and Edwards who were tied at 24. Leaning Vitter-Edwards runoff.