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We Just Saw the Hillary Clinton That Republicans Will Have to Beat

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton didn’t hold back from drawing sharp distinctions between her positions and the more liberal ones of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in Saturday night’s second Democratic debate. But Clinton’s performance wasn’t just about criticizing her Democratic opponents. It also was a clear preview of the campaign that Clinton is planning to run in the general election—with a message centered around bolstering the middle-class, a vigorous defense of Obama’s accomplishments, and sharp partisan attacks.

On economic policy, Clinton took every opportunity to paint herself as a pragmatist concerned with the middle class. When asked how she’d pay for her domestic priorities—free community college, debt-free public college, paid family leave, and lower drug costs—Clinton stressed that she would be raising taxes on the wealthy and closing corporate loopholes, without burdening “hardworking, middle-class families.” 

She emphasized, moreover, the need for an economic plan to be fiscally responsible—a concern that speaks far more to deficit hawks’ concerns about government debt than to the interests of the left. It all lays the groundwork for her to counter the criticism that Republicans are already making about the Democratic agenda: that it will raise taxes on ordinary Americans and blow up the deficit. 

She took a similar tack on other economic policy issues, taking every opportunity to sound like the quintessential Reasonable Politician Who Won’t Raise Everyone’s Taxes. When Sanders went after her for failing to support Glass-Steagall—the New Deal-era bill that established a firewall between investment and commercial banking but was repealed during her husband’s presidency—she responded that it simply wouldn’t be pragmatic to do so. “I just don’t think it would get the job done—I just want to make sure we ultimately get results,” she told Sanders. 

And what about Sanders’s plan to offer free public college tuition to everyone? “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college,” Clinton quipped. Both responses spoke to Clinton’s ultimate goal in these debates: She knows she’s light years ahead of the opposition, so the debate stage is an opportunity to position herself for the bigger fight ahead. 

In fact, Clinton is already taking the fight to Republicans. As in the first debate, she took pains to point to the GOP as the collective enemy and main barrier to progress:

Look at what’s happening with the Republicans. They are doing everything they can to prevent the voices of Americans to be heard. They’re trying to prevent people from registering to vote. We do need to take on the Republicans very clearly and directly.

Clinton continued in the same vein when CBS moderator John Dickerson asked her about the controversy over her private email server, arguing that the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans deserve more attention than emailgate. “What I see in their debates—they are putting forth alarming plans. All of us support funding Planned Parenthood, all of us believe that climate change is real, all us want equal pay for equal work—they don’t believe in any of that,” she said. “Let’s focus on what this election is going to be about.” 

As I’ve argued before, this is the strongest case that Clinton has to make in the primary and the general election, no matter who the Republican nominee is: She doesn’t need to prove that she’s “likable,” just that she’s a strong leader who will be in the best position to hold the line against a GOP that has moved farther and farther to the right—and who will extract what victories she can through executive action given a Congress that will very likely remain under Republican control. 

It’s much the same strategy that Obama has embraced throughout his second term, and Clinton made it clear during the debate that she is running to defend his accomplishments. The case she made against Sanders’s single-payer plan, for instance, wasn’t that it’s too expensive or too socialist, but that it would dismantle Obamacare and end up empowering Republicans by creating a national system administered by the states. “I would not want, If I lived in Iowa, Terry Branstad administering my health care. I—think—I think as Democrats we ought to proudly support the Affordable Care Act, improve it, and make it the model that we know it can be,” she said.

At the same time, Clinton also gave a preview on Saturday of the kinds of weaknesses that could hobble her in a general election. When Sanders pressed her on her ties to Wall Street, her response that bankers donate to her campaign because she won them over in the aftermath of 9/11 seemed both logically confused and politically craven. But while Republicans may be eager to make hay over that kind of remark, their time might be better spent preparing to counter the bigger message about the middle-class and the GOP’s ideological rigidity that she’s already rehearsing for the next phase of the 2016 race.