The Super Bowl of politics.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Clinton Proves It Pays to Prepare

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
Read More.
a | A

On the biggest stage in politics, Hillary Clinton did to Donald Trump what 16 men failed to do in the primaries: She took command from the moment she strode over to shake Trump’s hand. In 2000, Representative Rick Lazio lost the New York Senate debate when he invaded her personal space. When she invaded Trump’s space, she set herself up for a win.

Have times finally changed? Not really. Clinton still needs to work twice as hard for half the gains of a man, while obscuring her ambition and being pleasant. How many times has Trump been told he just has to be more likeable? Clinton was plenty appealing as she ate his lunch Monday night. It’s Trump who should have taken Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ patronizing advice to smile more.

She had done her homework, an activity Trump scoffs at. When there was an opening to question his position or his manhood -- beginning with her claim that his vaunted success started with a $14 million loan from his dad -- she was ready. Trump’s aides were intent on furthering the line that he didn’t prepare for the debate and now we believe them.

He went after her for staying off the campaign trail to get ready for their showdown:

“I've been all over the place," he said. "You decided to stay home, and that's OK."

She was ready: “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president.”

A woman has to be careful not to step over a blurry line that makes her seem too ambitious and in-charge. She found a way. He managed not to repeat his worst mistakes -- no intemperate comments about Muslims or Gold Star families or his private anatomy -- but he found new ways to offend, while displaying a lack of impulse control that could frighten the horses. Once Clinton rattled his huge yet fragile ego with her calm responses, he couldn’t stop himself from getting louder, more blustery, undisciplined and hectoring (even toward the moderator Lester Holt).  

She didn’t have to go all schoolmarm on him to do it because he did much of it to himself. On the Iraq War he kept insisting on the opposite of what’s on tape: he supported the war as the U.S. was getting into it. When he repeated his chest-thumping whopper that he’d done President Barack Obama a favor by getting to the bottom of the birther rumor started by Hillary, she had one of her best comebacks of the night, reprising First Lady Michelle Obama, the most popular figure in politics today: when your critics go low, you go high.

He left himself most open to attack when he spoke of his business practices which, in calmer moments, he’s held up as his principal selling point compared with hacks such as Clinton who have experience, but “bad experience.” He clung to the idea that an audit by the Internal Revenue Service was preventing him from releasing his tax returns, even though the IRS itself has said that’s not an issue. Then, when Hillary pointed out that the info that is in the public record shows that he didn’t pay any taxes some years, he gave himself a pat on the back for being “smart.”

He didn't look quite as smart later when he painted an apocalyptic picture of a "debtor nation" that needs "new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals. And we don't have the money, because it's been squandered on so many of your ideas."

She was able to respond: “Maybe because you haven't paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.”

His self-labeling as a champion of the little guy was further dented when she brought up the "dishwashers, architects, glass installers, marble installers," who had been "stiffed" by Trump. He could only scoff, suggesting that those he hadn't paid might have deserved it because they didn't "do a good job."

At one point, he interrupted loudly to say he had "a better temperament than she has.” For all women everywhere, Clinton paused, waited a beat, and said, “Whew. OK,” with a hint of a question mark at the end. By then she was so relaxed I wouldn’t have been surprised if, like Jimmy Fallon, she’d gone over and ruffled Trump’s hair.

Trump had a few moments, too, but they were not aimed at the voters he needs to attract but at pleasing the ones he has. He nailed Clinton on the Trans Pacific Partnership -- she brazenly changed her position to appease Bernie Sanders' supporters -- and he tied her to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he said had destroyed U.S. manufacturing. That’s not supported by economic data but it does appeal to his core voters who have lost jobs. 

But like a toreador delivering the coup de grace, she saved her deadliest feint for last, when she turned a question about her stamina (a gender-bending retread of the "low energy" tactic he used against Jeb Bush in the primaries) into a treatise on his relations with women, a key demographic in this election that Trump has gone out of his way to alienate. 

After Trump said she “doesn’t have the look,” to be president, she reminded women of his record of disrespect for them.  

"You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina," Clinton said. "But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers."

Then she hit him with the story of Alicia Machado, a former winner of the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant: "He called this woman 'Miss Piggy.' Then he called her 'Miss Housekeeping,' because she was Latina."

Trump subsequently may have made the hole deeper by explaining on Fox the next day that Machado had been "the worst, the absolute worst" and that she had "gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem."

The one thing Trump absolutely had to do he didn’t -- display the respect for the office he seeks. And he gave up the traditional advantage we viscerally grant men competing for the highest office in the country.

We watch the presidential debates from a kind of primordial crib. We hear the music more than the words. We want to be told everything is going to be all right, that any monsters lurking in the corners will be vanquished. It’s usually a father figure who fulfills this need, a gun-slinging, gruff but caring man at home on horseback, like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or any Roosevelt.    

On Monday, it was Clinton who fulfilled that role, showing us what a woman leader could be like. Trump came close to revealing what an immature man in charge would be like. He groaned, he shouted, he wagged his finger, he dissolved. He also sniffled throughout, blaming a defective mike.

The mike was fine. Let’s hope he’s not getting pneumonia or losing his stamina. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net