For the first half hour of the opening two-way debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both candidates appeared tired. Endless months on the campaign trail seemed to have taken their toll, which is not surprising when you consider that neither leading player exactly qualifies as an ingénue.
But thirty minutes in, Clinton sprang into action, forcefully striking back at Sanders for criticizing her acceptance of corporate campaign donations. "Enough is enough," she declared from her perch just inches away. "If you've got something to say, say it directly." Then, for good measure: "It's time to end the very artful smear." And with that flash of righteous indignation, the debate suddenly took a turn for the livelier.
It is strange that Beltway media folks regard Clinton as something less than fully human. In this debate she was all too human in exercising her instinct for self-defense. If anything, she verged on an excess of umbrage, when moments of humorous deflection might more effectively have done some of the heavy lifting. Clinton has particular difficulty addressing uncomfortable topics like her decision to hit the speaking circuit in search of pay dirt. A logical argument can be made that giving high-dollar speeches at corporate events is not unusual for someone in her position, and that any one of us would leap at the chance to make that kind of money, but she appears incapable of making the case in a way that passes the smell test.
Clinton's worst moment of the debate came when co-moderator Chuck Todd read a question from a voter asking if she would be willing to release the transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches. The candidate's response -- "I'll look into it" -- came across as both dismissive and full of crap. Surely Hillary Clinton is smart enough not have said anything in her paid speeches that would doom her in the public realm. What could possibly be gained by withholding the transcripts?
When the discussion pivoted to international affairs, Clinton regained her footing, even as Bernie Sanders betrayed his lack of foreign policy chops. Because he is not on solid ground in these discussions, Sanders tends to talk about international issues in the broadest of brush strokes. Clinton, on the other hand, weaves a dense tapestry, citing Afghani leaders by name, fluently describing North Korea's missile program, offering nuanced insights into Saudi-Iranian relations.
When Chuck Todd asked Sanders why he has not yet laid out a foreign policy doctrine or given a major foreign policy speech, the senator could muster no real response. Though Sanders was solid and impassioned on the issues he cares about -- corrupt politics and a rigged financial system -- he floundered on topics like terrorism, Russian aggression, and instability in the Middle East. Now that he is riding high in the polls, Sanders ought to be showing growth in his areas of vulnerability. Instead he continues to put all his rhetorical eggs in the same familiar basket.
More positively, Sanders deserves credit for refusing to get exercised about this week's murky results from the Iowa caucuses, and for steering clear of the latest faux-scandal surrounding his rival's e-mails as Secretary of State. This high-mindedness is not just posturing; he is that rare politician who seems honestly reluctant to get down in the mud. Yet even as this unwillingness to engage in political slagging endears Bernie Sanders to his supporters, it raises questions about how courteous he might be against his Republican counterpart in next fall's general election debates.
No such doubts surround Hillary Clinton. Watching her go mano-a-mano with Sanders proved again what we observed eight years ago in her two-way debates with Barack Obama: even when her flaws rise to the surface, Clinton remains a formidable debater who is not afraid to take a swing.