As a college debater, I learned the hard way that it was a mistake to trust the judges. Every once in a while, my partner and I would find ourselves debating against a poorly informed or angrily hyperbolic team. Early in our competitive career, we would stand back and count on the judge to notice that our opponents were self-immolating. After one too many judge somehow accepted a flatly untrue statement or seemed moved by unhinged passion, we changed course. In every competitive round, we worked hard to make sure that there was no room for anyone to question the outcome. We ran the risk of appearing too aggressive in order to ensure that we won. And it worked. Sunday night, as I watched Hillary Clinton stand back while Donald Trump huffed, puffed and threatened to put her in jail, I wondered why she did not strike as hard as she might. The answer is that politics is not competitive debate and that Michelle Obama’s maxim: “when they go low, we go high” is how elections, as opposed to debates, are won.
All by himself, Donald Trump demonstrated that he does not think that the tape of his bragging about sexually assaulting women matters (“locker room talk); that he has conceded Syria to the Russians (Aleppo has “essentially fallen); that he does not see the difference between religion and terror (his horrific answer to the muslim woman); and that he has no respect for basic tenets of constitutional democracy (his threat to imprison Secretary Clinton). He also showed himself to be badly uninformed about: taxes; economic growth; health care; our inner cities; race; and even the facts of the Bill Clinton era scandals. Notwithstanding all of this low-hanging fruit, Hillary Clinton trundled through the debate explaining what she would do as President and only sometimes briefly urging viewers to fact check her opponent.
In so doing, she lost many of the pundit judges. CNN and other news networks lamented her failure to land a knockout blow. The news Monday, at least at first, suggested that Trump had somehow righted the ship of his bizarre campaign. Clinton, though, was smart. Because behind those headlines lies Sunday evening’s truth. First, she knows her stuff; he does not. Second, she handled the physicality of the town hall well – she was either talking to the voter or at her chair. In contrast, he loomed, sniffed, walked and sighed, behaving in an appreciably animalistic way throughout. Third, she let him fall into traps that will spring of their own accord throughout this week: (1) he denied that he had done the things described in the now famous tape; (2) he disagreed with Mike Pence; (3) he admitted that he does not pay personal income tax; and (4) most dramatically, he threatened to jail her if he won. All of these moments will resonate across time. The last is, by my measure, the single most remarkable comment ever made in a Presidential debate. Our constitutional democracy is, quite literally, defined by the peaceful and graceful transition of power. Donald Trump, as his threat reveals, is antithetical to who we are.
So too, and Clinton seems to know this, is his effort to mask bragging about tic-tac enabled sexual assault as “locker room talk.” It’s not. Men who respect women never speak like this. Indeed, civilized people never speak like this. Even more so, they do not act like this. In a world now increasingly aware of the horror of sexual assault and the need for clear and informed consent, Trump’s effort to minimize his conduct is beyond offensive. It is this simple: a person who says and does such things cannot be a serious candidate for President in 2016.
This last sentence is what Hillary Clinton is willing to trust that the real judges, the voters, know. For the Clinton campaign, Sunday night was about contrast. On the one hand, the rampaging Donald Trump, looking every bit like a man who believes he is entitled to kiss and grab with impunity. And, on the other, the frustrated but dignified former Secretary of State, looking very much like a President. The moments that make up this contrast will resonate and mean more across time than the immediate reactions of the pundits. In sticking to her approach in the face of bombast and hatred, Hillary Clinton looked very much like a President of the United States.