If tonight’s (mostly) civil Democratic debate were a Passover Seder — and at several points Bernie Sanders’s Brooklynese and socialist politics made me feel like I was back arguing with my clan over matzoh-ball soup — then Joe Biden would be Elijah: the spectral presence hovering at the door. Unfortunately for Biden, Hillary Clinton’s adult performance just made it a lot harder for him to take a seat at the table.
That, at least, is the feeling coming out of a newly reenergized Clinton campaign in Las Vegas. “I think Biden would be scared to be up there,” one giddy Clinton backer told me in a hallway of the Wynn after the debate. “I don’t see how he gets in,” another said. On the record, Clinton’s senior advisers repeated a more measured version of what James Carville told me the night before the debate when I asked about Biden: “It’s time to shit or get off the pot.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said Biden “should make the decision.” Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, echoed the point. “He has his own decision to make,” she said. Clinton’s chief strategist, Joel Benenson, said simply: “It’s his choice.”
Clinton inarguably made that choice a lot more difficult. She confidently dispatched tough questions about her flip-flops on trade and the Iraq War. She embraced Obama’s achievements while deftly saying she would go “beyond” his record on student debt and health care. And she got the greatest gift she could hope for when Sanders declared her emails a nonissue. Clinton’s spontaneous, and warm, embrace of Sanders after their exchange showed that, no, she’s not a robot.
Going into tonight, Clinton’s strategy was to make Biden seem “unimportant” by focusing on substance and policy. On those fronts she delivered big, and did much to soothe the fears of her anxious supporters. “I felt that we saw the next president of the United States,” Palmieri said. For Biden, the danger in waiting has always been that the political landscape could shift before he announces. Tonight’s debate shifted the landscape. In recent weeks, the conventional view among Democrats has been that Clinton’s email scandal combined with her inability to connect created a wide opening for Biden to get in (along with the inspirational way he grieved following his son’s tragic death).
The most powerful image Clinton conveyed tonight is that she’s an actual candidate rather than a virtual one. “I don’t take a backseat to anyone,” she declared. “This debate was about these five people,” Benenson said. And, if she aces next week’s Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill — and many Democrats I spoke to expect she will — then she would have effectively eliminated any remaining arguments for a Biden run. Unless, of course, the ongoing FBI investigation into the security of her email server ends in a bombshell that instantly blows open the door. But for now, Biden looks left out in the cold.