By all reasonable measures, Tuesday night's debate was a triumph for both Hillary Clinton and the Democrats generally. Early signs show that it was the highest-rated Democratic debate ever, getting even more viewers than the Obama-Clinton showdown of 2008. While that doesn't touch on the numbers that Republicans can pull with their clown show, for a debate with actual grown-ups talking about real issues, those numbers are something to be proud of. Clinton's performance in particular was so strong and assured that not only did it seem to put the Joe Biden chatter to rest, but even many conservative viewers had to admit that she won the debate.
As Ed Kilgore of Talking Points Memo writes, "But in disappointing the lick-lipping MSM/GOP ghouls expecting her to screw up and invite Joe Biden into the contest, Clinton probably gained the most strategically." Unfortunately, many in both the conservative and mainstream media aren't going to let Clinton have a clean win. Already Clinton is being undermined by insinuations that she somehow had an unfair advantage, insinuations that frequently emit a strong whiff of sexism.
The most disturbing is the already-forming narrative that Clinton only looked good by comparison to her opponents. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker came out of the gate early with that one:
Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) October 14, 2015
Lizza no doubt didn't mean to come across as sexist, but it's hard to escape the implication that if any of the men in the contest had been halfway decent, they would have beat Clinton.
Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, in trying to praise Clinton, ended up sounding like he can't really wrap his head around the idea of a woman is a bona fide good politician. "She was, in short, a man among boys," he writes. No, she was a woman amongst men. As hard as it may be to accept it, sometimes a woman can really be the best there is, even in a field where she's competing with actual men.
Fox News, naturally, took a blunter, more aggressive approach to pushing this same idea. Elisabeth Hasselbeck described the debate as watching "the boys who seemed to be taken in the back room by the feminists and tied one arm behind their back in terms of challenge, letting Hillary Clinton win." The idea that Clinton could actually beat men fair and square seems impossible to her. If a woman beats a man, then it must be because he let her.
Similarly, Ron Fournier of the National Journal tried to play off Clinton's performance as an anomaly, writing that she "won herself a news cycle or two, because she stretched the truth and played to a friendly audience," but that her campaign will collapse once she faces real challenges. Again, the sexism is covert but unmistakeable: A woman's success is attributed to other people going easy on her, like she's a child bowling with bumpers, instead of attributed to her actual skills as a politician.
This is why the glass ceiling persists, because there's a lingering belief that even the smartest woman somehow will fall short of what a merely competent man can do. It clearly comforting in some corners to believe that Clinton only did well because her male opponents, out of ineptitude or fear of offending feminists, let her win the debate. But it's also untrue.
Sure, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee had a poor showing in the debate, with Webb coming across as vaguely monstrous and Chafee lamely claiming that he shouldn't be held responsible for his vote for Glass-Steagall because "I'd just arrived at the United States Senate." And his dad had just died.
But it's really unfair to both Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley to advance this claim that Clinton only looked good because the men didn't bother to fight. O'Malley isn't going to set the world on fire, but he came across as a competent, intelligent man whose values are right in line with what Democratic voters are looking for. In another race, against more typical opponents, O'Malley would have come across just fine. It's just that, standing next to a fired-up Hillary Clinton, he seemed a little dull.
As for Bernie Sanders, well, it's deeply unfair to suggest that he only paled to Clinton because he brought a diminished performance. The man showed up ready to rumble. He handled some of the hardest questions with a surprising grace for such a gruff man, particularly when it came to Anderson Cooper's confrontational question about the word "socialist." His strategy when it came to handling Clinton was perfect. Dismissing the ginned-up email scandal as empty politics made his attacks on her economic policies hit harder. He came across not as some opportunistic politician, but as a serious man who cares deeply about the issues.
Sanders came across as fair-minded, kind-hearted, tough, and intelligent. No wonder he got a fund-raising bump after the debate. That Clinton still bested him is not a sign that he failed, but that she succeeded. It's often said that women have to be twice as good to be taken half as seriously. Apparently, the flip is also true: Men are seen as half as good just because there's a woman in the room who is better than them.