Clinton stumbles as Paris changes the terms of debate

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was such a charged moment that I almost expected to see a split screen. On one side: the still-unfolding horror in Paris. On the other: the three Democratic candidates for president talking about how the United States should respond.

CBS News didn’t go that far, though it did rearrange the format to move questions about national security and terrorism to the beginning of Saturday night’s two-hour debate. Bernie Sanders was reportedly none too happy about it, but it’s hard to understand why. He more than held his own with Hillary Clinton, matching her with his command of the details, reminding everyone that she voted for the war in Iraq, and explaining that there’s a clear link between terrorism and climate change. That last bit may cause some head-scratching, but in fact it reflects the thinking of Defense Department experts.

Clinton’s performance was adequate for the most part, but she was not as stellar as she was in the first debate, a triumph that re-energized her campaign. She was strong on the details, but she was also relatively humorless and charmless. She also had two moments that reflected poorly on her political judgment. The first of those two moments was also the more important, since it may make some question whether they really want her to be answering the phone at 3 a.m.

Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton whether she agreed with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that “the attack in Paris showed we are at war with radical Islam.” A simple “yes” would have sufficed, and I’m surprised she wasn’t quick enough on her feet to realize it. Instead, she proceeded to head down a tangled syntactical path, arguing that we are not at war with Islam (that wasn’t the question), praising George W. Bush for making a clear distinction between Muslims and terrorists (OK, good point), and saying she preferred terms like “violent extremism.” (As usual, I am relying on a transcript published by The Washington Post.)

It wasn’t a terrible answer so much as it was overly complicated and somewhat tone-deaf. Just Google “Hillary Clinton” and “radical Islam” and you’ll see that the right is already in a high state of excitation. Is this a huge deal? Probably not. But it seemed to me that she handed an issue to her opponents for no good reason.

The other Clinton low point came in response to an arm-waving tirade by Sanders about her close relationship with Wall Street. It was actually pretty tough stuff from Bernie, including as it did a suggestion that she does favors for the financial sector in return for campaign contributions. “Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?” asked Sanders. “You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

Clinton’s response was to play the gender card and to wrap herself in the flag of 9/11. “You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small,” she said. “And I’m very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.” Then came this doozy:

So, I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

It was so brazen that debate panelist Nancy Cordes later hit Clinton with an observation from someone on Twitter who said, “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”

(It occurs to me that I’m 650 words into this and I haven’t mentioned the third candidate, Martin O’Malley. He just didn’t seem to be a factor. Compared to Sanders and Clinton, he comes across as inexperienced and unprepared. And I finally figured out what his earnest, wooden speaking style reminds me of: the official response to the State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.)

Most of the debate was devoted to domestic issues. No new ground was broken. Sanders is still appalled by “millionaires and billionaires.” All three support raising the minimum wage, although Clinton — there she goes again — gave a complicated answer that left me wondering exactly where she stands.

But given that the world is still dealing with the shock of the Paris attacks, let me return to foreign policy, an area that’s a real weakness for both parties.

International affairs should be a strength for Clinton, who is, after all, a former secretary of state. But liberals don’t trust her because of her support for the war in Iraq, and the right’s endless investigation into the Benghazi incident has undermined her reputation for competence and contributed to the longstanding perception that she’s not trustworthy. And I doubt many prospective voters see Sanders or O’Malley as a plausible commander-in-chief.

On the Republican side, it’s a whole lot worse. The hateful immigrant-bashing rhetoric of Donald Trump is the most visible (and audible) manifestation of the Republicans’ problems in dealing with the world at large. Marco Rubio is callow and inexperienced. Who knows what’s floating around inside Ben Carson’s head? Jeb Bush was rocked by Politico Magazine story over the weekend showing (as if we didn’t already know it) that no, his brother most definitely did not keep us safe. Maybe Lindsey Graham, a consistent exponent of John McCain-style aggression, is finally about to have his day.

At the moment we can’t guess how the Paris attacks will affect the presidential race. I was struck by the willingness of all three Democrats to continue accepting Syrian refugees — a humane and proper stance, but one likely to prove unpopular, especially since one of the terrorists appears to have entered Europe by pretending to be a refugee. Will we commit a significant number of American troops to the war against ISIS? Will we be able to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place here?

Given those difficult issues, it could be that the foreign-policy focus of Saturday night’s was premature. The stakes are likely to be much higher in the weeks and months ahead.