It’s Time for Democrats to Stop Freaking Out About 2016

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Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the presidential debate on October 13, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Okay, Eeyores, let’s snap out of it. Tuesday night should mark the end of what has felt like an endless phase of Democratic (and media) bed-wetting about Hillary Clinton, the state of the party, and the general grimness of this year’s presidential prospects.

From Las Vegas, we saw what was surely one of the higher-quality debates Democrats (and certainly Republicans) have held in ages, and it was especially good if you were a Hillary Clinton supporter, a Bernie Sanders supporter, a left-of-center Democrat, or anyone who is deeply sick of reading Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Banished were fears of an unlikable, unrelatable, robotic Clinton: Vegas Hillary was relaxed, confident, playful, eager to acknowledge her fellow debaters mostly as allies, with allusions to the years they’d spent together in the political trenches. She even made a joke about how it takes her longer to pee. Yes, she went after Bernie on guns (fairly) and he after her on Iraq (also fairly), but this was a debate; impassioned argument is supposed to be part of the deal. Mostly, Clinton was as loose as she’s been in a while. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her pull off a televised moment as nimbly as she did the one in which moderator Anderson Cooper asked if she wanted to respond to Lincoln Chafee’s long-winded complaint about her email issues and transparency by saying, simply, “No.”

She and Sanders both looked spiffy and happy to be there: Her hair was soft, his brushed. Each seemed to enjoy talking with the other. He gave her the night’s biggest Valentine, with his declaration that “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” but she responded in kind, with genuine gratitude and a warm smile.

The truth is, Sanders has offered Clinton — and Democrats — a million gifts so far this season. Among the most valid fears was that Hillary’s candidacy would go unchallenged, would proceed as a coronation. But the senator from Vermont has already ensured that this won’t be the case. He is a serious challenger, a smart and good man who is probably going to beat her in early states, and perhaps beyond. This is not bad news for Hillary. As tonight’s debate showed, it’s great news. It means there's someone to keep her on her game; no Hillary is worse than a coasting Hillary. It means an engaged electorate and candidates who need to pay attention to the direction in which their party’s voters want to go.

And the party wants to go left, the direction whence Hillary Clinton sprang and away from which she has been running for decades. The fact that Bernie’s surging popularity has forced her (or allowed her) to return here — to talk of prison reform, higher minimum wages, of racial and class inequality, of college-tuition costs and paid leave — isn’t a mark against her, as it’s so often made out to be. It’s a sign that she’s actually listening and responding to what Democratic voters want. Remember that another (legitimate) fear about Clinton is that she’d always run as a limp centrist and a slippery triangulator. But she appeared neither limp nor slippery at the debate. Right now, she’s tacking toward progressivism without a catch in her voice and that's good for the left.

At this debate, Hillary Clinton declared, “Yes, of course we should raise the minimum wage, but we have to do so much more, including finding ways for companies to share profits with the workers who make them.” She announced that “We need a new New Deal for communities of color,” a statement that seems to have bloomed from her meeting last week with Black Lives Matter activists. There were even giddy minutes in which she and Bernie cheerfully argued about the shortcomings of capitalism. In public. Because of Bernie, and his one area of serious progressive shortfall, Americans were treated to a Hillary who said something lots of us have longed to hear: “It is time the entire country stood up against the NRA!”

There were plenty of groans from lefties on social media in response to Clinton’s pronouncement, in response to a question about how she’d be different from Obama, that she’d be the first woman president. But it was actually a pretty deft answer. First, it greased her pivot away from a question intended to bait her into criticism of her former primary opponent and boss. Second, while it does not comprise a complete argument for why should she be president — as the two-plus hours of debate about topics other than her gender suggested — it is true that we’ve never had a woman president. And it is nuts.

What’s more, whether or not it had to do with her gender, Hillary scored one of the night’s biggest slam dunks by being the only candidate to say the words “Planned Parenthood,” in response to a question about how big government would have to get to support her proposed paid-leave plans. “[Republicans] don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose,” said Clinton with real ire, “and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it! We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain ‘big government this, big government that’ except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it because we’re gonna make the wealthy pay for it!”

It was a high point. And yes, there were also low points, for Hillary and others: Her answers on banks were pretty unconvincing; Bernie’s view of paid leave as somehow being an issue exclusive to mothers was disappointing; there was a horrifically crass ad paid for by an anti-Hillary super-pac that traded on the lost life of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens; Anderson Cooper didn’t ask a single question about reproductive rights and only one about race. Then there was that “Landslide” cover playing anachronistically in every trailer for Suffragette.

But mostly, Democrats should stop freaking out, at least for now. They have a calm, strong front-runner with a strong, smart challenger. This is how it’s supposed to work.