In every debate, there are winners and losers. Tuesday night’s fourth GOP debate in Milwaukee was no exception. Polls show a bump for Marco Rubio, Donald Trump dominated in terms of new followers and likes on social media, and Ted Cruz worked the audience like no other, with 13 minutes of speaking time littered with applause and laughter.

On the other side, Jeb Bush failed to make any significant strides back into relevancy, and John Kasich was booed during his answer on bailing out banks. However, amid the fanfare and platitudes about what America is “really about” that typically accompany Republican debates, one candidate should feel pretty good about her position after this one: Hillary Clinton.

Billed as the debate about jobs and the economy, moderators from the Fox Business Network and The Wall Street Journal broached a variety of topics, from Syria to who on stage would have his or her tax plan endorsed by God to which five departments of government Ted Cruz would cut (spoiler alert: two of them are the Department of Commerce). Only one talking point, though, made its way into everyone’s remarks, and that was the Democratic frontrunner.

Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned a total of 24 times in the two-hour debate, and at least once by each of the eight candidates (issues that were never mentioned, by the way, include race, making higher education affordable and campaign finance reform). She was called the worst secretary of state in history and the embodiment of cronyism. She was accused, along with Bernie Sanders, of not telling the truth about what’s hurting the middle class. She was challenged, in the third person, by Carly Fiorina.

Clearly, a requirement for any candidate during primary season should be electability and the potential to win a general election against an opposing party. But when was the last time, without an incumbent president running for re-election, that one person has had such a permanent and unshakeable target on his or her backs with the election a year away? All of this made one thing clear: Republicans have a major Hillary Clinton complex, and it’s not going away any time soon.

Why, then, does this make Hillary Clinton a winner? Simply put, constant attacks make GOP candidates look small, especially considering the fact that every charge leveled has been shrugged off by its target. The former secretary looks classier, more mature and more presidential with every dismissal of the clown car on the opposite side of the ticket next November. Not to mention the fact that in the long run, the American people are bound to tire of negative campaigning, if that is to be a central tenet of Republican campaigns for the next 12 months. And with articles titled “Who Can Beat Hillary Clinton?” being written in the hours after the debate, she seems like more and more of an inevitability for the Democratic nomination (likely to the chagrin of Sanders supporters).

Take how Fox moderator Maria Bartiromo began her question to Marco Rubio about whether anyone could compare to the “impressive resumé” of Hillary Clinton: “She was the first lady of the United States, a U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state under Barack Obama. She has arguably more experience, certainly more time in government than almost all of you on stage tonight.”

Seconds into the question, the entire audience started booing loudly. There are two explanations for this: One is that the audience of likely Republican voters thought it to be a bad question and that the former secretary of state, senator and first lady’s resumé is not impressive (which would be clearly biased nonsense). Another is that they know the opposite is true — that Hillary Clinton is qualified to be president and the sheer mention of her qualifications causes a knee-jerk reaction of moaning and woe in conservatives.

The simple fact of the matter is that primary season should be a time for candidates on both sides to connect with voters and determine the stances and issues that will resonate best with the people they are determined to lead, not a cage match to decide who gets to the title fight. As someone who is not registered with either political party and will not cast a vote in the primaries, I value the chance to see candidates get to know their base and how they steer their campaigns in certain directions based on the stories they hear and the people they meet. During Tuesday’s debate, though, it was difficult to see any of that, considering the only direction I saw from each campaign was straight to the White House and through Hillary Clinton.

Instead, I saw what will be the most glaring weakness of the Republican field thus far. It’s not Jeb’s family name or Carly Fiorina’s business record. It’s not Donald Trump’s unpredictable aversion to political correctness or Ben Carson thinking the pyramids were built by Joseph to store grain, though all of these come in a strong second place. It’s the fact that they can’t stop talking about Hillary Clinton and start talking about the issues. It’s the fact that mentioning her name can change a poor answer to an applause line. It’s the fact that sooner or later, the parade of negative campaign material is going to get old for the independent middle, which doesn’t necessarily hate the former secretary.

In case it wasn’t obvious, the constant demonization of one personality is not enough to base a winning presidential campaign on. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Brett Graham can be reached at btgraham@umich.edu.

 

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