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Hillary Clinton sounds like she’s already running in the general election

Andrew Burton/Getty

During Saturday's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton had two nominal opponents: Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. But her main focus seemed to be elsewhere — on the general election.

Rather than try to placate progressives — as she did this summer and fall during Sanders's surge, when she moved to the left on trade and the Keystone XL pipeline — Clinton frequently seemed to be making a case aimed at swing voters, as several commentators observed.

It was the last debate of the year for Democrats (who have only one more left before Iowa and New Hampshire vote in February 2016). And Clinton's performance seems to indicate she thinks she's done with this primary even before anyone's voted.

Hillary's arguments seemed aimed at swing voters, not the left

For instance, on domestic policy, Clinton reiterated her pledge that she wouldn't raise taxes on middle class families making less than $250,000 a year, despite Sanders's arguments that such a pledge made sweeping progressive change less likely.

"I don't think we should be imposing new big programs that are going to raise middle-class families' taxes," she said. "I don't think a middle-class tax should be part of anybody's plan right now." This is not what many progressives want to hear — Matt Yglesias has argued that Clinton's pledge is "bad news for progressive policies" — but it could well hope counter Republican attacks on Clinton as a tax-hiking Democrat.

And on foreign affairs, when Sanders called Clinton a "fan" of regime change, she defended her past positions as hard-headed and practical. "The right road" for the US, she said, was both to "work with the tough men, the dictators, for our own benefit" and to try and "promote democracy."

Clinton's closing statement particularly sounded like she had skipped a few months forward to the general election — it was all about contrasting her with the GOP:

"On January 20th, 2017, the next president of the United States will walk into the White House. If, heaven forbid, that next president is a Republican, I think it's pretty clear we know what will happen.

A lot of the rights that have been won over the years from women's rights to voter rights to gay rights to worker rights will be at risk. Social security, which Republicans call a Ponzi scheme, may face privatization. Our vets may see the VA hospital that needs to be improved and made better for them turned over to privatization. Planned Parenthood will be defunded. The list goes on because the differences are so stark.

You know, everybody says every election's important. And there's truth to that. This is a watershed election. I know how important it is that we have a Democrat succeed President Obama in the White House. And I will do all that I can in this campaign to reach out and explain what I stand for and what I will do as president."

Indeed, if Clinton does win the Democratic nomination, expect her to make a case just like this to Bernie Sanders supporters. She'll argue that this year's Republican candidate, whoever it is, will be uniquely dangerous, and that Democrats should unite around her.

But, of course, she hasn't won it yet. Sanders is currently leading polls in New Hampshire, one of the first two states on the primary calendar. And though this Democratic debate — late on the Saturday before Christmas — is unlikely to make much of an impact on the race, there will be another month of intense campaigning in January before the voting actually begins. We'll see then whether Clinton will truly be able to move on to the general election so quickly.