Hillary Clinton's Strongest Debate Moment Was When She Unexpectedly Brought Up This Important Issue
Sunday night's fourth Democratic presidential debate ended up being, well, pretty much what everyone predicted: a contentious affair between frontrunner Hillary Clinton, contender Bernie Sanders, and forgettable Martin O'Malley. But at the very end of the night, when moderator Lester Holt offered the candidates a chance to address anything they thought had been overlooked, Clinton turned away from attacking her rivals, and in doing so, she had perhaps her best debate moment of her 2016 campaign. The unexpected issue Clinton brought up in her closing? The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which has imperiled the health of thousands of people, drawn a federal emergency declaration from President Obama, and shaken the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder.
If you're not familiar with the nature of the crisis, here's the basic gist. Back in 2014, the city of Flint (while under the direction of one of the state's highly controversial emergency managers) changed the source of their water supply as a means of cutting costs, drawing water from the infamously dirty Flint River rather than from the better-treated Lake Huron. The human cost turned out to be devastating. The quality of the water supply went south almost immediately, and complaints from the public to the state government went unheeded. Snyder has come under withering scrutiny for his inaction in the case ― Flint's water has been contaminated with lead since 2014.
Here's what Clinton said about the crisis. She lambasted Snyder, and also invoked race and class to suggest that if white children in the suburbs were drinking tainted water, something would've been done sooner:
Well Lester, I spent a lot of time last week being outraged by what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and I think every single American should be outraged. We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African-American, has been bathing and drinking in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what: if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water, and being bathed in it, there would’ve been action.
To be clear, Bernie Sanders has touched on this issue as well. In fact, on Saturday night, he publicly called for Snyder's resignation. And following Clinton's closing, Sanders reiterated the same kind of forceful condemnations that she did. It's not that any of the Democrats are soft or lacking on this issue. It's an area of robust agreement ― which is useful for both contenders, because as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight notes, both of them have better than 80 percent favorability ratings among Democratic voters.
But if you're taking everything into account ― the words, the delivery, the unapologetic moral certitude, and the power to get things done ― this may just have been the strongest moment Clinton's had in any of the debates so far. She was given the choice of what she wanted to say, how she wanted to close, and what she settled on was maybe the most powerful demonstration of her skills as an orator that the race has seen has so far. It's not really enough just to read the words, so go ahead and give the video of her statement a look:
That right there is Hillary Clinton at the peak of her political powers, and it shows just how much she can crush an issue as perfectly positioned as this one. When a governor (from the opposing party, no less) is being roasted on mainstream media and social media alike for failing to protect their state from lead poisoning, suffice to say things are lined up for a forceful, dramatic statement.
For all the Clinton supporters out there who've been sweating a little in the face of Sanders' impressive ascent in the polls, this moment will probably set them at ease. It was the embattled frontrunner in her best fighting form, and she showed off a rhetorical flourish that was distinct from Sanders' approach. Obviously, he has his own inimitable style that gets the better of her sometimes, especially on economic justice and foreign policy. But in addition to being a hugely significant public wake-up call to the nation about the situation in Flint, Clinton saved the best for last, in the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses.