Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate was no joke, even if it started a little stiff. Hillary Clinton came out of the gate talking about raising the minimum wage and the importance of paid leave. Bernie Sanders used his opening remarks to put Citizens United on blast and talk about racial justice and ending mass incarceration.
They talked specifics on Wall Street's culture of impunity, comprehensive immigration reform, and making college affordable again. And if the policy acumen on display by the party's two leading candidates didn't pique your interest, there was poor Lincoln Chafee to provide some wincing levity with lines like, "You're looking at a block of granite," or Jim Webb, perpetually stern and disappointed, complaining about how little time he felt he had to talk.
Martin O'Malley made a strong, if subtler, case for himself as a progressive Democrat, but the night really belonged to Clinton and Sanders. And after the midway point, the night really, really belonged to Clinton.
It all started with her emails. Her use of her personal account while serving as secretary of state had to come up, and it was an open question how Clinton would choose to respond. In the past, she's laughed it off, apologized, and defended her actions as lawful on paper even if she maybe regrets the choice now. She ended up hitting back with a careful response, maybe born of exhaustion, that slowly built into righteous indignation and eventually landed her at a fuck-all kind of attitude about where her priorities were.
And it totally, totally worked.
With Anderson Cooper pressing the question as Clinton tried to deflect, she finally offered:
This [Republican congressional] committee has spent $4.5 million of taxpayer money, and they said that they were trying to figure out what we could do better to protect our diplomats so that something like Benghazi wouldn't happen again. There were already seven committee reports about what to do. So I think it's pretty clear what their obvious goal is.
Her tone went from apologetic to defiant: "But I'll be there," she continued. "I'll answer their questions. But tonight, I want to talk not about my e-mails, but about what the American people want from the next president of the United States."
A moment later, Clinton's high point got another boost from Sanders: "Let me say—let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails."
The audience erupted into applause. Clinton and Sanders shook hands. It was kind of electric, honestly. And just like that, Clinton took over.
When asked by Cooper if she wanted to respond to Chafee's comment on her judgment and American "credibility," Clinton was unflinching, basically giddy, when she smiled and said: "No."
She pivoted deftly from remarks about paid family leave to a mic drop on Planned Parenthood, calling out Republican-led assaults on reproductive healthcare before declaring that the United States could afford to provide every family with paid leave because "we’re gonna make the wealthy pay for it!”
I will admit that I was one of the people who thought the whole thing was going to be boring, and I can admit now that was a pretty dumb thing to think. Maybe the theatrics of the Republican debates had deadened my senses a bit—I mean, Donald Trump would not be there to call anyone unattractive or talk about how many buildings he's built. Is anything worth watching without that? But I expected something more performative, less substantive, than what we actually got, with Clinton and Sanders sparring, agreeing, and pushing one another.
And after her "no" moment, Clinton seemed to bring the same attitude–the wry humor and confidence of someone who has been here before, done this before—to the remainder of the debate. The conversation was rigorous, a reminder that these things aren't all about spectacle and actually can be an opportunity for candidates to showcase their similarities and differences, and Clinton, who had seemed more scripted and cautious early on in the night, finally seemed happy to be there for it.