Hillary and the Lost Boys

If the first Democratic primary debate of the 2016 cycle showed us anything, it is the value of experience -- experience in politics, certainly, but also experience in the art of political communication. Hillary Clinton won the debate hands down, with a performance so disciplined and effective that it should serve as a model for future candidates who are about to enter this rarefied arena. By understanding her mission, internalizing her message, and striking an appropriately commanding tone, Clinton ran circles around her opponents.

Much has been made of Clinton's intense pre-debate preparation, and while it's true that she came to the event fully prepared to discourse upon the issues of the day, her preparation went beyond a mastery of content. For Clinton, preparation also meant comprehending how to successfully navigate the particular milieu of a live televised debate. She was relaxed, vivacious, charming -- and a lot more three-dimensional than her robotic media caricature would suggest.

Consider a few of Hillary's standout maneuvers:

• In a discussion of gun control, Clinton aggressively took on Bernie Sanders in a way that left him flummoxed, outflanking him from the left in one of the first exchanges of the night. This moment came at a critical point in the debate, when judgments were just beginning to take form, and it set the tone for all that followed.

• In thanking Martin O'Malley for his 2008 endorsement, Clinton deftly defused his criticism of her vote in favor of the Iraq war. "I consider him obviously a friend," she said, in a tone that suggested he might not want to do anything to endanger that friendship.

• When Sanders delivered the sound bite of the night -- "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned e-mails" -- Clinton reacted by thanking her opponent and offering him her hand in solidarity. What might have been a Sanders-only moment became a moment that Hillary grabbed a piece of for herself as well.

• Asked by moderator Anderson Cooper if she wanted to respond to Lincoln Chafee's dig on Clinton's credibility, she gave a monosyllabic answer -- "no" -- and stopped talking. In debates, knowing when to remain silent can be every bit as important as knowing when to keep yakking.

Over and over Clinton asserted herself as a strong, no-nonsense leader. "I'm not taking a back seat to anyone" she said on more than one occasion, and there could be no doubt that she meant it. No one got the best of her in this debate -- not her opponents, not the questioners, not the audience. By the end of her closing statement, Hillary Clinton seemed to be the only person on the stage.

With Clinton the big winner of the night, where did that leave her rivals? Bernie Sanders, the one threat to the Hillary juggernaut, only rarely seized his opportunities. If Sanders had a game plan for this debate, it wasn't apparent. He has an admirable knack for staying on message, but this consistency results in adherence to his tried-and-true script when he ought to be reactive. Candidates should never get too lose on a debate stage, but at minimum they need to recognize that debates are live television programs, driven by their own internal logic -- which includes a demand for rolling with the punches.

As a performer Sanders's essential problem is that he functions at only a single setting. Everything he says is delivered with an equal sense of urgency, like a trumpet that blares the same few notes in an endless loop. As an orator Sanders tends to bark his messages, with accompanying upper-body gestures that make it appear he's conducting an imaginary orchestra. By no means did Sanders commit any major errors, and his supporters will find plenty to like in his performance. But this first debate in particular was an opportunity for him to expand that circle of support by drawing new voters to his cause. That goal he left unaccomplished.

Martin O'Malley, another candidate with a lot riding on this debate, apprehended better than Sanders the contours of the event, though that doesn't mean he fully rose to the occasion. O'Malley got off a few decent lines, yet his humble-bragging has a tendency to sound smarmy and he peppers his speech with too much bureaucratic jargon. Certainly O'Malley was no match for Clinton, by whom he seemed a bit intimidated. Even when he took her on, he did so with such gentility that it barely registered.

The remaining two candidates, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, vied for the role of skunk at the garden party. Chafee went the furthest of anyone in assailing Clinton, though his strafing left no dent. Webb spent far too much of his precious time bitching about how long he had to wait to be called upon -- never a smart debate move. Webb wavered between common-sense lucidity and outright weirdness, graceful one minute and coiled like a rattlesnake the next. For the most part he came across as a man aggrieved, which is not how you win over an audience.

Against the battle-scarred veteran Hillary, the men didn't stand a chance. At a moment when experience and expertise are under assault in American politics, Hillary Clinton's debate performance in Las Vegas provides an instructive counterexample. It turns out there's a lot to be said for it not being your first time at the rodeo.