A tough night for Hillary Clinton

Story highlights

  • Hugh Hewitt: Strong GOP debate adds to concerns the leading Democrat should have about questions on her record as secretary of state
  • He says a number of candidates displayed strong skills and tried out arguments vs. Clinton

Hugh Hewitt is a lawyer, law professor, author and host of a nationally syndicated radio show. He served in the Reagan administration in posts including assistant counsel in the White House and special assistant to two attorneys general. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Which Republican does former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fear the most at this moment -- after four GOP debates, with her own nomination nearly secure, but with troubling developments surrounding her own general election prospects?

Last night's debate added to her growing pile of worries. It was a very good night for the GOP, and a very bad one for her. And it came after a string of setbacks for Clinton -- setbacks large and small, obvious and hidden.
Hugh Hewitt
Just in the last week, a copy of her signed, 15-paragraph "Sensitive Compartmented Information Non-Disclosure Agreement," executed on January 22, 2009 surfaced in The Washington Free Beacon courtesy of Lachlan Markay. This signed NDA removes any doubt that Mrs. Clinton was briefed and agreed to protocols concerning the highest classification materials, including the absolute duty to protect their integrity and to leave them all in the government's custody upon retirement.
    Also in the last week, in a Reuters story by Jonathan Allen, came the news that the global consulting firm Teneo, a company with extensive and murky ties to all things Clinton, refused to answer most questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee about those ties and the doors they may have opened.

    VA scandal

    Less than two weeks ago, Clinton stumbled badly when she downplayed the scandal at the Veterans Administration to Rachel Maddow, dismissing it as "not as widespread" as critics had made it out to be for political reasons -- a tin-eared obliviousness obvious even to her supporters still cheering her appearance before the Benghazi committee. (An appearance that -- for all of the sighs of relief it elicited from Clinton-world -- exposed her deep dishonesty about the non-role of a video critical of Islam in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.)
    So the former secretary of state watched two debates Tuesday night that (1) previewed in small bits the attacks which will grow unrelenting as the 2016 election draws closer, (2) featured a chilling commercial for the sure-to-be-damning-for-her movie "13 Hours" about the Benghazi terrorist attack and (3) showcased the rhetorical skills of a quartet of would-be nominees -- Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio -- that are undeniably superior to hers. She has plenty to fear from many in the GOP field, but debates with those four have got to top her list of nightmares. (Which is why, in my book of advice for her, "The Queen," I advise her to simply refuse general election debates, as Richard Nixon did in 1972, and to adopt contemptuous language in doing so.)
    None of the Republican nominees are less appealing than Mrs. Clinton, especially when Fiorina's scathing, scalding reminder of "the Clinton way" is fresh in the memory. Carly foreshadowed a line of attack that the GOP nominee -- whomever he or she turns out to be -- will use, one that pounds on Mrs. Clinton's untrustworthiness, her family's wealth and the means by which it was gained, and her catastrophic tenure at the State Department.
    Hillary has to be worried about some combination of those four candidates facing her next fall, but worried as well that Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are drawing huge audiences to the GOP debates and new voters to the GOP registration desk.
    She has to be worried that even the very liberal Larry David, in his "Saturday Night Live" appearance last weekend, joined in the mockery of the idea of Donald Trump being a racist, and that the media overkill on Ben Carson's biographical detail solidified an already nearly 100% suspicion that the public believes that media is in her corner, has a collective finger on the scale. She has to be worried that the public thinks the media is in the tank for her because they, like she, are part of the privileged America for whom the economic times are never rough and the landings are always soft.

    Third Obama term?

    She has to be worried that the unrelenting attacks on the police and the odd sequence of campus controversies are creating within middle class America a puzzlement-bordering-on-panic that the country is careening out of control under the President she wants to succeed with the promise of a third Obama term.
    Hillary is every Republican's target, thought by many rank-and-file average Americans to be protected by the media, and a dreadful candidate 25 years or more older than some of her possible competitors. With fewer people on the GOP stage, freed from the anchor of the antagonistic moderators of the third debate, the GOP's "elite eight" mostly excelled at making their points and their cases.
    As the field narrows but does not collapse, Hillary's woes will increase. She cannot train all her financial firepower on a nominee she can't identify, even as she must keep shuffling left to stay within an arm's reach of the avowed socialist from Vermont, as the GOP collectively sharpens its focus and its skills.
    Last night was a first real glimpse of the skills gap that will haunt the former first lady in the fall. Her party's bench is decimated; the GOP bench is full. For every alleged downside to every Republican candidate, there is an upside argument.
    And there is that word that Donald Trump introduced into the campaign and which continues to shape and define it: energy. Many of the Republican candidates had it at various moments last night. And just those few glimpses, combined with the dreadful realities of the world Hillary helped make and the fears fanned by the forces she helped the President to unleash, means she must have spent a troubled night.
    But mostly that trailer for that movie. It is haunting. Damning. And it will not go away, much as she wishes it would. Neither will her NDA. Neither will the questions unanswered by Teneo.