How the Democratic Debate Changed the 2016 Presidential Race

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Hillary Clinton in the first Democratic debate. Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the Democratic presidential primary debate, Paul Ryan and the quest for a new Speaker of the House, and a new era for Playboy.

Did the first Democratic debate change anything about the 2016 presidential race?
A lot. The morning-after consensus (left, right, and center) is correct: Hillary Clinton not only romped over the competition — such as it was — but could well have shut down the prospect of a Biden run. But if the Clinton revival sustains itself, the turning point will not have been last night’s debate but Kevin McCarthy’s September 29 public admission on Fox News that the House Benghazi committee’s main motivation was to take her out rather than investigate the deaths of four Americans taken out by terrorists. That bit of truth-telling ended Benghazi as an issue (to the extent it had ever been one beyond the GOP base) and may have kneecapped the email controversy too. It’s worth noting that the two back-to-back moments when last night’s debate first came alive were both on this subject: First, Bernie Sanders’s declaration that the “American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” and, second, Clinton’s fast “No” when invited to respond to Lincoln Chaffee’s questioning of her “ethical standards.”

Sanders’s usefulness to Clinton was omnipresent last night. He has pushed her to the left on a number of his populist economic issues, and it’s clear she has worked hard to find a way to make those positions sound less “socialist” (not to mention less New Yawk) than he can. (She has not found a way to explain her flip-flop on the Pacific trade agreement, however.) Sanders also revealed that he has failed to find a way to dig himself out of his occasional heterodoxy on gun control, giving Clinton a free path to milk the one issue on which she is to his left.

What the others were doing onstage wasn’t clear. None of them made the case that there should be more debates than already scheduled. As long as O’Malley, Chaffee, and Webb hang in, the ratings are likely to go down. Anderson Cooper was a well-prepared, ungimmicky moderator, but it took nearly an hour before any of the candidates deviated from scripted talking points. CNN also tried the audience’s patience by hyping the debate incessantly over the preceding day or so with an onscreen countdown clock that turned out to be a fraud: The show actually started some 20 minutes after the clock hit the zero hour.

The debate’s immediate effect may be limited to calming Democratic jitteriness about Clinton and buzz about Biden. But while there’s still plenty that can go wrong for Clinton — the quid pro quo agenda of sleazy donors to the family foundation, not the emails, has always struck me as the potential Pandora’s box of scandals — she comes out of this in an undeniably enhanced position. Her constant assertion that she would be the first woman president may seem hokey, but it seems less so in the face of the Republican competition, where the No. 1 candidate likens women to pigs and bimbos and the lately favored “moderate” candidate Marco Rubio said on-camera in a GOP debate that women who are victims of rape or incest must be denied abortions.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s victory over the Benghazi inquisitors remains, as the man would say, “yuge.” If the first act of that supposed scandal’s unraveling was McCarthy’s suicidal admission, and the second act was last night’s debate, act three should arrive next week, when Hillary testifies before the House committee and likely crushes it much as she did the men coming after her in Vegas.

Paul Ryan’s hesitation to answer the GOP’s call to be its next Speaker of the House is fueled, some observers think, by his fear that involvement in a partisan mess is an impediment to his longer career. Is a case to be made that the second most powerful position in government is beneath him?  
Ryan seems to think everything is beneath him except his lofty engagement in policy as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee — policy being defined as cutting taxes for the GOP donor class and cutting entitlements like social security and Medicare for everyone else. The real question, and clearly the one he is wrestling with, is whether he can come out of the speakership unsoiled should he deign to answer the party Establishment’s call and run to the rescue of a caucus in utter chaos.

The answer is no. No matter who becomes speaker, the math will remain the same: There are some 40 radicals in the House who would rather shut down Washington than govern, and there is a fierce presidential candidate in the Senate, Ted Cruz, aiding and abetting them. There is also a strong auxiliary in the right’s media complex — Drudge, Mark Levin, Erick Erickson, Laura Ingraham, et al — that is on the radicals’ side and is already attacking Ryan. Ryan is not used to being attacked by his own cohort — he is usually treated worshipfully — and it’s hard to imagine how he would weather it. Indeed, Ryan has everything to lose and nothing to gain should he take the plunge. He’ll own his party’s severe dysfunction. About the best success you can hope for as a GOP Speaker in this era is to leave the job without being caught in a sex scandal.

Speaking of sex: Playboy magazine has announced that, beginning in March, it will no longer feature nude women. Will people now read the magazine only, as they say, for the articles? 
As Hillary Clinton exemplifies, America has come a long way in the more than 60 years since Hugh Hefner invented both Playboy and a certain aspirational masculine lifestyle that has now devolved into Donald Trump. What is Trump Tower, after all, if not the Playboy mansion executed with less taste? And what is Playboy as a business today if not a Trump-like operation licensing its brand and logo to any takers for almost any purpose around the globe?

I haven’t seen Playboy in decades. I don’t know what to make of the Times report that its website both reduced its median age (from 47 to just over 30) and gained an exponential amount of traffic (rising from 4 million unique users per month to 16 million) when it dropped nudity last year. This is a counterintuitive sociological development that demands deeper investigation. But that said, I have nostalgia for the Playboy of my pubescent years. I still remember which friends’ fathers and older brothers had stashes buried in their drawers and how many Hardy Boys–like adventures we all had in uncovering those treasures; I still remember the bad cartoons; I still remember Barbi Benton; and I still remember the late 1960s television iteration, Playboy After Dark. But wait — wasn’t Bill Cosby a regular

R.I.P.

How the Democratic Debate Changed the 2016 Race