Hillary Clinton’s performance in the debate in Florida on Wednesday was, as usual, a professional effort. She’s good at this, and she hit her marks repeatedly.
But she also reminded me of one worry I have about her as president.
Clinton had a good day in Michigan and Mississippi on Tuesday. That’s right: A good day. She received more votes than Bernie Sanders and collected more delegates. She not only did well in Mississippi, as was expected. She did better than the demographics of the state’s voters would have suggested. And while Sanders won in Michigan, it was close, and she actually lost by a little less than would be predicted from looking at Michigan’s electorate. The bad news was she did worse than the pundits expected because the polls were off in Michigan, meaning that almost all anyone talked about on TV was what a great night Sanders had.
At the debate, would she react in a measured way to the reality of the situation — her dominant lead — or would she be influenced by the narrative created by the pundits? She could have just nodded and agreed with Sanders where possible, while turning her attacks on the Republicans. This strategy might have cost her a few votes on March 15 in Florida or Ohio, but so what? And going positive might have disarmed Sanders a bit if he came out ready to attack her, as was the case.
Clinton chose poorly.
She was ready to bash Sanders as if they were neck and neck. She hit him again for his opposition to the auto industry bailout and to 2007 immigration legislation, for example, using a defensible but hardly obvious interpretation of his votes to cast him in the worst light possible. It’s to her credit that she’s talented at delivering hard hits like this, and there’s nothing wrong with using opposition research to spin things her way. That’s what presidential candidates do.
But it’s not to her credit that she allowed the pundits’ agenda to distract her from her own goals. One of Barack Obama’s strengths in the 2008 campaign was his willingness to sacrifice a news cycle in favor of larger objectives. That has generally been a strength during his presidency: He rarely changes course just because he knows he’s going to draw heat over nonsense that will blow over in a few days.
Letting the news cycle affect a campaign or, worse, a presidency is a mistake. If Wednesday night’s debate was a test of Clinton’s judgment in this regard, she didn’t do well.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View
columnist covering U.S. politics