- - Monday, October 12, 2015


Hillary Clinton suits up tonight in Las Vegas for this year’s first Democratic presidential debate, going against what Barack Obama might call the junior varsity, or the JV. The juniors, who look more like old-timers invited back for old times’ sake, include an angry old Socialist (with a capital S) who has never before run for anything as a Democrat, a former governor from a blue state who has been remarkably inept at making any headway, a former senator, war hero, novelist and secretary of the Navy who has never found a job interesting enough to hold his attention, and a former Republican senator who quit the GOP to work on persuading America to convert to the decimal system.

“Former” seems to be the operative word among Democratic candidates this year. CNN, the host of the debate, is trying to make the proceedings lively enough to keep the candidates up past their usual bedtime. The network put up a spare podium in hopes that Joe Biden might drop by.

The Democratic Party is controlled by Clintonistas, who wanted to abolish or limit debates this year to prepare for a Clinton coronation. That made sense a year ago when the lady appeared inevitable and invincible. Now, not so much. The news that a Democratic member of Congress, a vice chairman of the party, found her ticket to the proceedings cancelled after she suggested the party needs more debates, reveals a severe case of nerves within the ranks. Mrs. Clinton’s favorability drops in the polls, and her lead is slipping everywhere.

Democratic voters have a lot of questions for Mrs. Clinton. The question begging to be asked of the Democratic contenders is a question posed to Republican candidates in their first debate: Will they promise to support the nominee, whoever it may be? Since Bernie Sanders proudly calls himself a Socialist, which is appealing enough in Vermont, regarded by many as more a boutique than a state, but may be too extreme to win a national election, would the other candidates publicly pledge to support him if he is the nominee, anyway? We hope Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon, the CNN moderators, will think to ask the question.

This first Democratic debate is to focus on domestic issues and the economy, so Hillary may dodge questions about her role in the collapse of Libya, abandoning the ambassador in Benghazi when bullets began to fly, or the failure of the “reset” to Russia she so breathlessly announced after she became the secretary of State.

Another question for Hillary is what new facts emerged to persuade her to change her mind and oppose President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership after vigorously supporting it for so long? The other candidates should be asked whether she should have used a private rather than a government server to conduct official email business.

The email scandal, however, is about crony capitalism and domestic corruption as well as foreign policy and she should have an opportunity to do more than sweep something so serious under a rug with a one-liner and a laugh. If she still thinks that “at this point, what difference does it make?” she should have a chance to say so. These are questions that trouble the FBI as well as the public.

Clinton allies in the party have jiggered the rules to help her avoid the tough questions, but if the debate is worth the name the questions must be asked. Jim Webb, a party contrarian with nothing to lose, might do it. So might Martin O’Malley. Setting off a little fireworks might lift them out of the ranks of the 1 percenters. That’s how players get off the junior varsity to join the big boys.

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