Why Hillary Dominated the Democratic Debate (and Why the Race Isn't Over)

After months of being stuck in a rather silly media box of, ironically, her own original making, Hillary Clinton at last found herself in a competitive situation in this long unfolding presidential campaign. And, free from the endless catch-22 purgatory of mostly silly chatter about her not-so-private emails, she did extremely well in the Las Vegas Democratic presidential debate. She easily fended off her remarkably strong principal Democratic rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the rest of the field. In so doing, she all but guaranteed that Vice President Joe Biden -- who I didn't think would run -- will not make the race.

Some highlights from the Las Vegas Democratic presidential debate.

Now many in the media and politics are not so privately proclaiming the Democratic race to be over. Which it is not.

Hillary dominated the Vegas face-off because she is the most plausible potential president in either party. Hillary dominated because she is very smart, she has command presence, she knows a lot about a lot of things, and she is a very good arguer. (Which is not quite the same thing as being a very good debater, since stubbornness rather than supple resolve is more the controlling factor for the arguer. End of my contribution to the eternal Hillary shrinkfest.) She was even, to borrow Barack Obama's ever so gallant phrase, "likable enough."

Even though I disagree with her in a number of ways, at times very strongly, I have no problem seeing her as President of the United States. Hillary might or might not get us into more trouble than we are already in, but she would fit the part. It's doubt about what she would do in the part that prevents her from being a slam-dunk in the race.

For Sanders, uncertain as much of his performance was in the debate, it represents a powerful political tendency. And it's still very unclear that Hillary has learned her lessons from her advocacy of the invasion of Iraq.

The invasion of Iraq, crashingly stupid as it was in itself, is about more than the invasion of Iraq. Which Sanders et al really doesn't know how to discuss.

The invasion of Iraq is about a syndrome of post-9/11 America. It's about grabbing for oil in an age of climate change while giving only lip service to the existential issue of our time. It's about arrogantly failing to think a few steps ahead to the predictable geopolitical shifts and incipient chaos. It's about imagining that America is stronger than it really is. It's about relying on faddish military thinking you don't really understand, i.e., the "revolution in military affairs" and "counter-insurgency." It's about wildly unaccountable public policy. It's about the further empowerment of elites (who were doing more than fine already) and the disempowerment of democracy. It's about profit-seeking for the few at the disastrous expense of the public treasury. It's about the further expansion and entrenchment of a national security state that is not making us more secure or even achieving the operational results it claims.

It's like that.

Sanders doesn't seem to know how to articulate that. Nor do the other Democrats on the debate stage. Hillary simply sloughed off a few desultory questions and comments about Iraq as emblematic of concerns about her judgment on geopolitics as so much chatter.

"America today is the wealthiest country in the history of the world. But most people don't know that, most people don't feel that, most people don't see that. Because almost all of the wealth rests in the hands of a tiny few." -- -- Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont)

But Sanders certainly seems to know how to say that.

So he may yet work his way around to how messages on inequality and hyper-elitism relate to what might be called the Iraq Syndrome.

Not that Hillary can't find a better way to deal with Iraq herself. She could say, for example, that she made a mistake on the war because she had inadequate and illusory information. As a senator at the time, she had some access but far less than that enjoyed by the president or even what she had as secretary of state. She was misled by a process that presented cooked intel. She's learned to be more skeptical.

Of course, Hillary would have to really admit that she was wrong -- going beyond the general "I've made mistakes, I regret the decision" boilerplate -- something not easy for a stubborn person to do. And she would have to deal with the fact that the Bush/Cheney administration's CIA director was Bill Clinton's CIA director, well-meaning but very ambitious former Senate staffer George Tenet.

So, for now at least, I expect the Iraq opening to continue to exist for Sanders as well as Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee.

If Sanders can incorporate the Iraq Syndrome as part and parcel of his core message on vast and growing inequalities and hyper-elitism, he may solve his problem of sounding rather defensive and tentative on geopolitics. Insisting that he's not a pacifist may be one way to deal with the perception that he's an old '60s hippie, but it does him little good as a presidential candidate.

Hillary showed far more assurance when it came to the big world matters that a president has to deal with, even when her answers were shallow and short-term expedient. But Sanders certainly did well enough overall.

Why? Because he has a powerful cause. Whether it's because of our hollow, shaky recovery and vast and growing inequity, or because of trending technology to solve scarcity and make even more people economically irrelevant, socialism is a vital and developing tendency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Hillary presented as her presidential exemplar in his big campaign kick-off on New York's Roosevelt Island in June, certainly saw much the same thing in his day. He made major social democratic adjustments to the system in order to save it. Perhaps it is Bernie Sanders's historical role to push Hillary to seize the FDR mantle in that way.

In the meantime, Sanders seems poised for very strong performances in the contests early next year, and perhaps beyond.

As for Hillary, well, no one has looked more like a president in this year's debates.

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