Like most everyone else who watched last night’s Democratic debate, I thought Hillary Clinton easily won. It helped, of course, that the four people on the stage with her – Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and (especially) Lincoln Chafee — constituted the weakest field in the history of the human race. Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton proved she’s a formidable debater, her single strength as a candidate, as best that I can tell.
Her performance last night will mute calls among Democrats for Vice President Joe Biden – himself a gaffe-prone, two-time failure as a presidential candidate –to get into the race. But it’s hard to believe that Mr. Biden’s decision will be determined by what happened last night.
My guess, then, is that whatever political gains Mrs. Clinton made last night will prove ephemeral, particularly as it relates to her email scandal. The reason is that her problem is not so much political as it is legal — and in giving up her server to the FBI, she has lost control of events.
The email scandal remains, as one longtime Clinton family adviser told Politico, a “cancer” on her campaign. And that cancer is not about to go into remission based on what happened yesterday. (The cancer metaphor has an ominous political history, as this tape-recorded conversation between Richard Nixon and John Dean reminds us.)
It’s fine for Senator Sanders to declare, “I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Whether they are or not – and I have my doubts – it is irrelevant when it comes to the criminal investigation now under way. What matters isn’t what Bernie Sanders thinks; what matters is what investigators, including what two veteran prosecutors in the Justice Department’s National Security Division who are overseeing this investigation, find.
I continue to believe, based on what has been reported to date, that what they will find is that Mrs. Clinton’s server was compromised by foreign intelligence services, and she mishandled classified material, including information deemed to be top secret. And that doesn’t even take into account the emails that will prove to be embarrassing and ethically incriminating.
What matters, then, isn’t what was said or not said on a debate stage in Las Vegas last night. What matters won’t even be what happens when Mrs. Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi later this month. What matters is what the FBI is piecing together. If and when that information is revealed, what happened at the Wynn Resort may well be seen as temporary respite from a crippling scandal.