But Clinton triumphed. The other candidates failed to take multiple opportunities to disparage her ethics, her flip-flops and her electability. None of them said that Clinton has done a lot to justify the public’s perception of her as untrustworthy, or that this perception could doom Democrats’ chances of keeping the White House if she is the nominee. This would have been a harsh criticism, to be sure, and many Democrats would have disliked hearing it. But that is, fundamentally, the case against her being the Democratic nominee.
Instead of making it, Bernie Sanders even defended her on the e-mail issue, saying he was sick of hearing about it — a sentiment with which she heartily, and surely sincerely, agreed.
Clinton didn’t just benefit from opponents who refused to go negative. She also effectively parried their few efforts to go after her. O’Malley suggested that she shouldn’t be president because of her vote for the Iraq war; she pointed out that he had backed her presidential campaign in 2008, long after that vote. She did an effective job of sticking to her most popular policies: The increased minimum wage got an early mention, and she talked about paid family leave every chance she could.
Democratic elites — officeholders, big donors, strategists, and so forth — will be relieved by her performance. But it remains to be seen how one particular member of that elite, Biden, will react. He could find her performance impressive and decide that she is not vulnerable to a challenge. Or he could decide that she is vulnerable indeed, given how low her poll numbers have been in Iowa and New Hampshire against such weak rivals.
And for all her caution, she might not be positioning herself well for the general election. This is not just a matter of being too liberal. The public wants a change after two terms of Obama — a sentiment it would have even if he were more popular than he is.
When he ran to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988, George H.W. Bush felt he had to promise a “kinder, gentler nation” as a way of separating himself from the incumbent. Separation would seem to be more important today, given how dissatisfied people are with the state of the country. (Even Democrats: Clinton should have listened to Sanders’s litany of complaints about the economy at the end of two Obama terms.) But Clinton voiced no specific disagreement with the Obama administration and outlined no new direction. Asked to name a difference, she invoked her sex.