October 13, 2015

Oh God, I'm getting flashbacks. Well, if you want to read a relatively in-depth look at Hillary Clinton's debate history, here it is:

Who might she swing on in a debate? As front-runner in campaign 2008, she avoided aggressing on other candidates until Obama started catching up to her in the polls, which is when she stirred Wright, Farrakhan and Ayers into the mix. Seeing as Sanders has vowed to wage an “issues” campaign, he’s not likely to open fire on her in hopes of attracting return fire, and until he comes close to parity with her in the polls, she’s not likely to fire first. Should Vice President Joe Biden enter the race, she’ll have a stack of oppo-research ready for loading in her chamber. But in the early debates, it will be in her interest to keep them placid and for her to reserve her venting for the Republicans.

You don’t need a field guide to spot the wild cards in the debates—Martin O’Malley and James Webb, who are like the guys in the Bob Dylan song—when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. They’ll be the anti-Bernies, ignoring the issues as they attempt to burn Madame Secretary’s playhouse down with good old-fashioned political hellfire. Clinton can outwit them, of course, by refusing to fire back. Throughout the debate, she’ll keep her venting settings on low. Single-digit also-rans like O’Malley and Webb, whose candidacies have been widely neglected, can only benefit from her engagement: She will starve them of attention like unwanted chicks in an overpopulated nest. Running effectively as the incumbent, Clinton wants to appear as somebody above politics and will showcase the times when as a U.S. senator she “went across the party line and joined up with a Republican senator” to make health care happen for 21,000 National Guard and Reserve members. She never growls until she feels threatened.

The debate will give Clinton a chance to tidy the pleats and folds of her candidacy, which have been ruffled by the email controversy, her flip-flops and her swooshing slide in the polls. Campaigns are never won in the debates, but the skirmishes fought there inform the days and weeks that follow until the next debate. Clinton can thank the gods that the Biden dither hasn’t turned into a Biden candidacy yet, which will make her the most recognizable—if not most presidential—figure on the stage.

With 2008 as the antecedent, look for Clinton to ease into the debate and present her plans for the future like some solidly researched but endlessly boring State Department white paper. Every debate is the same blah-blah-blah, but every debate has its own place in time. Sanders has gone on record saying his act will be nothing but issues, and it’s hard to imagine that O’Malley and Webb, neither of whom have captured the public’s mind with a signature set of issues, will rile her. Clinton demonstrated in 2008 that she doesn’t believe in flashing death’s fangs at her opponents unless she really needs to, as she did in the final sessions with Obama. Unless and until Biden enters the campaign and begins to displace her policy and popularity niche in the race, expect her to be Candidate Nice.

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