Commentary

Hillary Fails With Donald in Trail's Gotcha Moment: Read My Lips

Maybe being a real person, in tune with the moment, is at odds with the nature of what they call retail politics.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears on Nov. 9, 2015, in Nashua, New Hampshire.

Photographer: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

"I wouldn't mess with you," Hillary Clinton said to a supporter at a rally on Tuesday. Some people think she should have. 

That was her (presumably startled) reply, amid a lot of laughs, when a man said his reaction to seeing Carly Fiorina on TV makes him want to "reach through and strangle her." Clinton did not, however, rebuke the man for his allusion to violence in what is ostensibly a civic exercise in democracy. 

Donald Trump failed to think on his feet, too, about two months ago when a supporter at one of his rallies said Muslims in the U.S. are a problem, that Obama's one of them, and that "we know he's not even an American." Trump's reply would have sounded better with question marks instead of periods: "We need this question. This is the first question." 

For irony bonus points, here are Clinton's comments when the Trump scene went down: "I was appalled," Clinton said to CNN. "Not only was it out of bounds, it was untrue. He should have, from the beginning, corrected that kind of rhetoric, that level of hatefulness." 

Yeah, well, easier said than done, it appears. But not for everyone. 

Senator John McCain speaks at a town-hall style meeting on July 31, 2008, in Racine, Wisconsin.
Senator John McCain speaks at a town-hall style meeting on July 31, 2008, in Racine, Wisconsin.
Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Way back in October 2008, Senator John McCain got hit with something similar when a woman at a town hall-type event called Obama an "Arab." McCain, however, handled it right then and there. 

"No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, (a) citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about," said McCain, who, in a just world, would have been the Republican nominee in 2000. 

However, as reported by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their book "Game Change," McCain ran a race that was a departure in some ways from what we usually see, and one of those ways could be described as the "I-don't-give-a-(fig)" approach. 

"As McCain's town hall meetings devolved into shouting matches over immigration, the candidate let his frustration show through," Heilemann and Halperin wrote. "He called Lindsey Graham in despair. Listen to these people, McCain said. Why would I want to be the leader of a party of such (rhymes with tadpoles)?" 

Are these episodes instructive of the kind of candidates these people are? If your pandering dial isn't constantly set at 11, if you're selling the real you and not what you think the customers in this town hall want, then maybe you're not blocked out from cognitive reality when someone in your foaming audience says something repugnant. Maybe being a real person in tune with the moment, instead of looking like an awkward TV host with someone who has gone off-script, is at odds with the nature of what they call "retail politics." How can a candidate come across as human when in fact he or she has been stuffed to the gills with talking points -- to the point where the candidate can't think of anything else to say right at the moment when they need to most? 

"They're all playing a similar game," Nicholas Beauchamp said on the phone the other day. He's an assistant professor in the political science department at Northeastern University in Boston. "The question is where do they have their settings, inasmuch as all of them are thinking about their public persona. And as we all know when we're doing public speaking, two-thirds of your IQ goes into your public persona, leaving only one-third to do the actual thinking." 

Well, not all of us know that, but OK. 

"That's something you certainly experience when you're teaching," Beauchamp said. "When you're in front of the board, your IQ is slightly diminished because your brain is dedicated to your appearance." 

Presumably the man in the Clinton episode was a supporter of hers, and likewise with the man at the Trump rally. But what if they weren't? 

Given the ACORN videos and the Planned Parenthood videos and other forms of guerilla politics, what's the likelihood that eventually (if not already) someone in some campaign will figure out that moments like these are a way to expose a rival? 

It's simple: Plant someone in the audience who will ask or say something outrageous and see how the candidate responds. 

Beauchamp (he pronounces it like Beecham) says he could see it happening, given how little direct interaction there is between candidates, especially in what are passing for debates these days. Why not take the fight directly to them? 

"Ideally what happens in a debate is you get Candidate A to ask Candidate B a question -- if they actually were allowed to debate each other -- that says, `Alright, here's my framing of the problem, what do you think your solution is?'" Beauchamp said. "So then Candidate B would actually be forced to confront the issue that Candidate A had brought up. 

"And so if you're thinking as a candidate -- 'Well, I really want my competitor to respond to this frame' -- you could imagine that you really want to sort of induce moderators, or even have plants in the audience to bring up this issue that's so easy for them to just ignore and avoid altogether, which we saw tons of during the last debate, when they would just blithely ignore the question. There's very little penalty for that. 

"So if the worst-case version of that is asking gotcha questions or tricking them into betraying themselves in some way or other…" Beauchamp pauses slightly. "I guess that's the worst case, but it's not terrible because they are sort of making a slip that does reveal some important information. That's not necessarily a bad thing."

*****

"The Presidency hovers over the popular American imagination almost as a sacerdotal office, a priestly role for which normal political standards are invalid. The President -- any President -- is part of history, something that Americans, however mute they may remain, take very seriously. They choose their Presidents from men who seem to them familiar on the scene of history -- great chieftains of war and diplomacy, men who have previously sat in the Cabinets in Washington, men who have already inherited the White House as Vice-Presidents." -- Theodore H. White, The Making of the President 1960

Catch the GOP debate the other night? Leaving aside the gender specificity (it was 1960), did anyone up there strike you as fitting this description? Moreover, do we fit ours?

*****

Apollo Management's Josh Harris is making amends after landing in a P.R. predicament the other day -- literally.

A helicopter carrying the owner of the NHL's New Jersey Devils touched down on the soccer field at Saint Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey, last Sunday night and stayed there, forcing the cancellation of a youth match scheduled to get under way within minutes.

Evidently Harris has an arrangement with the school, which is close to the team's home ice at the Prudential Center, to use the field as a helipad, and miscommunication about scheduling resulted in the conflict.

Harris issued a heartfelt apology, making reference to time invested watching his own kids' sporting events, and said he planned to invite the teams' players, coaches and family members to attend a Devils game.

Harris also owns the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, who have shot out of the gate this season to a record of, wait for it, 0-8. They'll try for their first win tonight in Oklahoma City. If you want to go back to last season, which ended (mercifully) at 18-64, they have lost their last 18 games.

Don't suppose the roof at Philly's Wells Fargo Center is retractable.

(Read My Lips is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in a position of power, or the pursuit of it, will say or do things for which they will be sorry.)

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