Blow, Cohen and Collins

In “Queen Hillary Came to Play” Mr. Blow says Sanders’s strong performance was subsumed by Clinton’s even stronger one. She held steady and defiant.  Mr. Cohen, in “Obama’s What Next?”, says the president has been the king of the slippery-slope school of foreign policy.  Ms. Collins considers “Hillary Clinton’s Happy Brew” and says she’s having a magical month, so be careful about messing with her mojo.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Hillary Clinton crushed it! There is no other way for me to put it.

Her performance Tuesday night at the first Democratic debate was so spectacular as to erase all doubt: Weakened as she may be, there is still fire in that belly, and she will not quietly shift to the side to make room for someone else — not Bernie Sanders, and not Joe Biden should he ever stop this annoying dillydallying and decide to run.

And I don’t consider her performance spectacular simply because of what she did — although she demonstrated a remarkable assuredness and dexterity — but also because of what the others didn’t do.

It seemed as if Clinton was the only candidate on that stage that came to play … and to win.

Days before the debate on CNN (where I am a commentator), I was asked who I thought had the most to gain from the debate. I answered: Bernie Sanders.

My reasoning was that there are still large sections of the Democratic base — namely blacks and Hispanics — who don’t know who he is, and the debate was a perfect opportunity for him to introduce himself to those voters.

I actually believe that Sanders did that. He forcefully presented his message, and really hammered his selling point, his crusade against income inequality. And he had some strong and memorable lines, like “Congress does not regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates Congress.”

But in the end, Sanders’s strong performance was subsumed by Clinton’s even stronger one. Indeed, Sanders may have increased the margin separating them when he said that Americans were tired of talking about Clinton’s emails, thereby giving her a pass.

None of this means Republicans have not done real damage to her brand — her credibility and her electability. They have. None of it means that she would be the best general election candidate. Who knows.

And none of this means that Clinton’s performance was perfect. She inexplicably couldn’t bring herself to say the words “Black Lives Matter,” even after meeting with the group last week. She fumbled about a bit when answering a question about her relationship to Wall Street. She could have been more tactful when answering the question about the enemies she was proud of making.

But all in all, she played it nearly perfectly. That was in part because there was a prevailing sense of civility and seriousness that hung over the debate. That’s good. But there were also times when that civility seemed to border on acquiescence. Absolute civility isn’t always a luxury available to those who are losing. They need to punch up, often and hard.

The only person who came with that kind of bite was the curmudgeonlyJim Webb, who seemed like a candidate who got lost on his way to the Republican debate and simply decided to show up at the Democratic one.

Martin O’Malley seemed to be asleep during the first hour of the debate, and when he spoke he whispered more than Janet Jackson on the “Rhythm Nation” album.

I was absolutely sure that Clinton would be dinged a bit during the debate, but she escaped virtually unscathed and therefore looking untouchable.

Even when they attacked Hillary, she deftly negotiated the obstacles and turned them to her advantage.

Poor Lincoln Chafee, who seemed dazed and confused for the whole debate, could hardly get his answers out.

When Chafee was asked if he stood by his previous attacks on Clinton’s character and her use of a private email server, Chafee replied:

“Absolutely. We have to repair American credibility after we told the world that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he didn’t, so there’s an issue of American credibility out there. So anytime someone’s running to be our leader, and a world leader, which the American president is, credibility is an issue out there with the world. And we have repair work to be done. I think we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president.”

When Clinton was asked if she would like to respond, she delivered the perfect little one-word dis: “No!” That’s the kind of shade that would make Dorian Corey — who introduced the nuanced concept of “shade” to much of America in the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning” — applaud.

But that wasn’t the only thing I’ve seen on a screen that occurred to me Tuesday.

One of the most memorable lines from the HBO series “The Wire” comes when the notorious and eerily unflappable Omar yells to men shooting at him: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

That line kept replaying in my mind Tuesday night as attacks like Chafee’s missed their mark and Hillary held steady and defiant.

You come at the queen, you best not miss.

It’s interesting that almost everyone at the Times is firmly in the bag for Hillary.  Their readers?  Not so much.  Here’s “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY in response to Mr. Blow:  “It was a performance, period. And now Charles Blow dutifully joins the elite chorus to make the coronation official. Actually, the Huffington Post was the first outlet to use the phrase “crushed it” to describe the Chris Matthews-like thrill traveling up the giant media leg. That the press esteems style over substance has never been made more abundantly, nauseatingly clear. Paul Krugman wrote a pretty good smack-down of all the columnists and talking heads now tripping all over themselves in their abrupt pivot from Hillary Hate to Hillary Love She didn’t change. Her TV persona – her “brand” – has improved.  The irony is that it was fear of her stumbling that caused her pal Debbie Wasserman Schultz to limit the Democratic debates to an undemocratic, ridiculous six. The blessing is that the pundits are finally beginning to stifle their annoying “Draft Biden” chatter.  But guess what? Early polls, albeit unscientific, show that as far as regular citizens are concerned, it was Bernie who “crushed it.” In choosing not to attack Hillary on such things as the Saudis contributing $1 million to the Clinton Foundation after her State Department sold them $20 billion worth of lethal weapons, he showed himself to be a focused, decent man more interested in defending the downtrodden than in scoring points to win at any cost.  People don’t care about performances. We care, and Bernie cares, about how political corruption enables an oligarchy that is ruining millions of our lives.”  Now here’s Mr. Cohen:

Throughout the Obama years, when international crises and possible American intervention were discussed in the Situation Room, one question from the president was likely to recur: “O.K., but what happens after that?”

It could be the establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria, or setting up a safe area for Syrians fleeing, or putting troops back in Iraq after Islamic State militants overran Mosul — always there was concern over a slippery slope. President Obama, under his Doctrine of Restraint described in my last column, has been the king of the slippery-slope school of foreign policy. His decision to keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan, rather than withdraw them as previously planned, appears to reflect an acknowledgement that American retrenchment can be perilous.

The thing about the president’s what-next refrain was that it inevitably led to a range of dire scenarios. Suppose an American forward air controller in Iraq gets captured by Islamic State and burned alive? Suppose you’ve cratered the airfields in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad, rather than suing for peace, steps up his brutal ground campaign and resists? Well, take out his air defense sites and fast-forward arming the opposition. But then you get Russians and Iranians and Hezbollah pouring in to help Assad, and before you know it you’ve got 150,000 American troops on the ground invested in another intractable war.

O.K., but what happens after that?

Obama came to office at a time when sins of commission (read Iraq and Afghanistan) outweighed sins of omission. Inclined to lawyerly prudence, yet not without Wilsonian idealism, he was determined to reverse that.

He has sought, with some conspicuous exceptions, including the important Iran nuclear deal, what Robert Blackwill, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described to me as “a risk-free foreign policy.” For example, drone attacks on nations without air defenses are near risk-free.

But because there are always reasons not to act, the pursuit of the risk-free tends to pass the initiative to adversaries who believe they can escalate with no fear of American reprisal — see Russia and China. That is the freelance world we now live in. Syria is the American sin of omission par excellence, a diabolical complement to the American sin of commission in Iraq — two nations now on the brink of becoming ex-nations.

A pivotal moment came in 2013 when Obama was on the verge of a military response to Assad for crossing the American “red line” on chemical weapons. The British Parliament had voted against participation. Obama spoke to David Cameron, the British prime minister, who explained the situation. He spoke to François Hollande, the French president, who said France stood shoulder-to-shoulder with America. Targets had been identified. A long meeting of Obama’s top advisers was held on Friday, Aug. 30. The consensus was that the British vote did not change the calculus for action. The president asked if he had the constitutional authority to go ahead. He was told he did. When the meeting broke up, military action was imminent.

Then the president went for a now famous walk and in effect changed his mind. As a result, America’s word is worth less in the world. Syria could not be worse off than it is. “When your strongest asset, your military, is not ready to engage, people will factor you out,” Vali Nasr, the dean of the John Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies, told me.

But could it have been otherwise? American power in 2015 is not American power in 1990. Hyper-connectivity and the rise of the rest will constrain any president even if the United States, as Hillary Clinton put it, is not Denmark.

Suppose — that word — Obama had been frank and said: “My job is to reduce the footprint of America in a changed world and empower other countries to do more.” That’s a total sinker in American politics.

It’s unthinkable because most Americans are still hard-wired to American exceptionalism, the notion that America is not America if it gives up on spreading liberty. So it becomes hard to find a foreign-policy language that’s aligned to reality but does not smack of “declinism” — fatal for any politician. Republican bloviating about “weakling” Obama notwithstanding, any future president will face this foreign-policy dilemma: The distance between America’s idea of itself and what it can plausibly achieve is widening.

That said, I believe Obama has sold America short. The foreign-policy pendulum that swings between expansiveness and retrenchment has swung too far. His shift from indispensable power to indispensable partner has backfired when partner after partner — the Afghan Army, the Iraqi Army — has proved ineffective. The United States is not even at the Minsk table on the Ukraine crisis. Germany is.

“Just do it” might have served Obama better at times than “What next?” Between paralysis and 350,000 troops on the ground there are options. Not every intervention is a slippery slope. The question, post-Syria, is whether the next president can make American power credible enough to stop this crisis or another in the Middle East, the Baltics, or the South China Sea, from spiraling out of control.

And the rattling of sabers and swinging of dicks continues.  Just about the only thing you need to know about Mr. Cohen is that he was a supporter of the Iraq war.  Now here’s Ms. Collins:

So, Hillary Clinton. Skipping down the street. Sun is shining. A small and brightly colored bird is perching on her shoulder. Look — is that a rainbow?

Wow, what a good month she’s having. Certainly she’s due, by the sheer laws of probability. Nobody has as many bad months as Hillary Clinton. But this is really one heck of a run. Do you think there’s been an intervention? I just looked up a magic spell for “achieving a dream job” and it involves candles, cinnamon incense and bergamot oil. Just saying.

She had a great debate Tuesday night. Her main opponent, Bernie Sanders, said America was sick and tired of the damned email thing! This is actually classic Sanders, who combines persistent truth-telling with extreme crankiness. But convenient as all get-out for Clinton, who did an excellent job herself on most of the questions. In a perfect world she wouldn’t have said “I represented Wall Street,” but all in all, a home run.

And think of all the other stuff that’s been falling her way. She aced her spot on “Saturday Night Live.” This sort of thing is actually not all that tough for politicians — you just have to look sort of human. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Ted Cruz playing a sympathetic bartender.

And there’s Benghazi. The Republican-controlled House investigative committee that’s scheduled to grill her next week is beset by every disaster short of a plague of locusts. First House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy went on TV and utterly ruined the committee’s credibility by suggesting its purpose was to destroy Clinton’s presidential campaign.

The bad juju kept spreading. McCarthy dropped out of the race for speaker of the House, leaving the Republican majority in disarray and chaos. Maybe Clinton has been using that Macbeth recipe, the one involving eye of newt.

Then a former employee of the investigative committee popped up out of nowhere claiming he had been fired because he didn’t want to spend all of his time looking for ways to destroy Hillary Clinton. Double the newts and don’t hold back on the toe of frog.

A Times story by Eric Lipton, Noam Scheiber and Michael Schmidt explored the committee’s $4.5 million, 17-month history and was full of fascinating details beginning with the planned interviews that never occurred and hearings that never happened. Meanwhile, according to the aggrieved ex-employee, some staffers used their spare time to form a gun-buying club, while members held “wine Wednesdays” at which they sipped from glasses labeled “Glacial Pace.”

The committee leaders could, of course, still come down hard on Clinton. But if they do, you have to hope at some point she’ll bring up the guns and wine.

Right now, the Clinton campaign is still in the post-debate glow. More viewers watched it than the season premiere of “The Walking Dead”! People, when you are depressed about the state of the nation, think about the fact that more people wanted to see Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on CNN than tuned in for the most popular zombie TV series in history.

Clinton is almost always good in debates — she hit a question about Carly Fiorina’s opposition to paid family leave out of the park — and it didn’t hurt to be a woman surrounded by four crabby-looking men, only one of whom seemed to have any actual excuse for being there. Some people felt the high point was Sanders’s denouncing the email questions, but I personally treasure the moment when Lincoln Chafee called himself “a block of granite.”

Sanders did fine. In fact, he seemed to win the focus groups, and small donors poured in a new font of money. The country deserves a two-person debate between him and Clinton, maybe just about the financial industry. The next morning we would be discussing the Glass-Steagall Act from coast to coast, which would definitely make “The Walking Dead” ratings story pale by comparison.

But the first-debate danger for Clinton was mainly that one of the lesser-known candidates would come out of left field and throw her off balance, with jabs about ethics and emails. It is hard to express the degree to which that did not happen. Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, who was the original favorite to be Guy Who Gives Hillary a Run, looked at times as if he wanted to cry. The next morning O’Malley sent out a mass mailing announcing that the debate “wasn’t about me” but instead about … the death penalty.

It was possibly the weirdest campaign email I have ever seen in my life. Maybe O’Malley got caught up by the Hillary Clinton success spell. We’ll know it’s real next week if they open the Benghazi hearing and the Capitol starts to levitate.

And another one’s in the bag…  In the comments “Meredith” from NYC had this to say:  “Sanders ‘extreme crankiness’ has to be compulsively mentioned, even when ‘he did fine’? Thanks. Yes, HC did well, but not THAT well.  I don’t get why there’s an obvious NY Times bandwagon going on. First it was all dissing Sanders and now all rah rah Hillary. All alike. Can’t there be some variation? Some issue discussion instead of just horse race?  All the news that’s fit to print? Or all the news that’s fit for —what? Cable TV? The Web?  Readers might like to know, what do the op ed columnists think of fair wealth tax rates, a financial transaction tax, reversing Citizens United, restoring regulations, and how to finance college tuition—just to name a few. Is it verboten to discuss unions and min wage? Is it too much of a stretch to switch to these from the horse race, once in a while?   This is the nation’s most prestigious and authoritative newspaper? Seems as the quality of our campaigns declines, so does our media coverage.  Of course the Dems had a better debate than Gop—anything would be better. If the inmates of an insane asylum staged a debate for who would be president of the inmate association—it would sound like the Republican debates!  Did the decline in media start with television changing over to news infotainment, and cable TV 24 hour blather to fill air time, then the web and instant trendiness and click bait? Then the newspapers, trying for revenue, follow along? Will this get worse? What could reverse it? It’s big money in politics of course.”

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