Presidential Campaign

Hillary Clinton’s Pyrrhic victory?

The second Democratic presidential debate is fast approaching and undoubtedly, the wind is at candidate Hillary Clinton’s back. The overwhelming response to Clinton’s first debate showing has been positive. Moreover, her 11-hour questioning by the Select Committee on Benghazii only endeared her more to voters. After months of dogged criticisms over her emails, millions of voters were offered back-to-back opportunities to see Clinton for themselves under some very bright lights.

{mosads}The debate stage offered up a plethora of policy issues from Russia to Iran to Wall Street. It, no doubt, was a welcome and much-needed respite from the scandalous and salacious email and Benghazi imbroglios that have stalked her much of this campaign season. From the heat of Las Vegas to the fire on Capitol Hill, an all-day grilling by spirited Republicans revealed no new information on the Benghazi attack. Yet, while delivering commanding performances at both events and drawing record television ratings, Clinton’s victory is a hollow one.

Prior to the first debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was seeing a breakthrough in the polls as Clinton’s lead rapidly evaporated. Vice President Joe Biden’s possible last-minute entry, combined with Sanders’s unexpected rise, not only set the stage by which the Democratic presidential candidates would perform in Las Vegas, but determined the rules of engagement. As a result, Clinton, the eternal centrist and expert of triangulation (along with her husband), would have to forfeit the center and protect her left flank.

To that end, the former secretary of State did not disappoint. She engaged Sanders on his terms and won on issues like gun control and income inequality. Equally impressive, with the subtlety and deftness of a thief in the night, she attacked Biden — in absentia — by staking her claim as the rightful heir to the Obama mantle. All of it, no doubt, was red meat for the progressive left wing of the Democratic Party, but plenty of fodder for attack ads from the GOP should she become her party’s nominee.

Clinton’s move to the left is not unprecedented. This election cycle alone has seen many White House hopefuls on the right abandon their centrist bona fides in an effort to placate and capture the conservative base. Real Estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson are leading the pack as they have figured out the dog whistles that move the needle with the conservative base and the media. Clinton, too, has learned her lesson well since her failed 2008 presidential bid: In order to be president, do not overlook the necessary steps to secure the nomination. Clearly, she overcame two major hurdles on a warm desert night in Nevada and days later, when she faced down House Republicans on Capitol Hill. The question going forward for Clinton is: at what cost?

Clinton’s 11-hour testimony before the GOP-led Select Committee on Benghazi and her recent debate performance, along with Biden’s decision to forgo a presidential run, solidify her grip on the party nomination. She is dominating the news cycle and even managing to wrestle the spotlight from GOP front-runner Trump. Unlike Trump, Clinton is being lauded for exhibiting leadership, toughness and poise: all presidential qualities, to be sure. However, will Clinton — in an effort to turn back a spirited challenge from Sanders — box herself in by moving too far left and thereby make herself unelectable in a general election match-up?

Despite the electoral success of President Obama, the nation still leans center-right. Republicans control both chambers of Congress, which includes the largest majority in the House since World War II. Equally eye-popping, according to calculations by noted political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, Republicans now control more than 4,100 of the 7,000 state legislative seats nationwide. This startling number represents the highest seat gain for the GOP since 1920. Additionally, Republicans control 30 state legislatures completely and have full control of state government (state legislature and governorship) in 23 states.

Make no mistake about it, the GOP’s White House hopefuls are making it difficult for the party brand to grow at the national level. However, their margin of error is greater as they have much wider advantages statewide than do Democrats. Therefore, Hillary Clinton will have to walk a much finer line in a general election match-up given the overall mood and political leanings of the nation. Yes, Clinton is racking up wins, but unless she makes the pivot and fights on her terms — from the middle — she could end up losing it all.

Ham is a national political analyst and author of the bestselling book, The GOP Civil War: Inside the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party. Follow him @EKH2016.

Tags 2016 Democratic primary 2016 presidential campaign Democratic debates Hillary Clinton House Select Committee on Benghazi
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