For all the talk of Donald Trump’s primetime disintegration last Monday, the first presidential debate resulted in a clear win for Hillary Clinton for a less obvious reason. Yes, Trump was his typical boorish, mendacious, and uninformed self. It’s true that his lack of preparation and hateful rhetoric were bound to leave voters shocked and disgusted in what was for many their first lengthy exposure to it. And as described here yesterday, Trump’s complete inability to resist provocation led him astray time and again. Yet, left mostly unnoticed and underappreciated in this telling of Trump’s first one-on-one clash with Clinton, however, was how perfectly composed Clinton was in dealing with the potential stumbling blocks laid by her opponent and by the moderator Lester Holt.
It’s not as if Clinton was on the attack all night. She, too, is subject to biting critiques from her opponent and victim of unfavorable public perception of many aspects of her past. Unlike Trump, however, she did not feel the need to use her ninety-minute debate appearance as a means to vanquish every foe and right every wrong. She had goals and a strategy for achieving them. And she stuck to it.
Even with Trump’s run-on sentences and bizarre defenses, the narrative that emerged from Monday’s contest might have been far different had Clinton felt the unquenchable need to respond to every goading insinuation. A botched answer on emails or the crime bill or her record as Secretary of State—even if it answered a misleading and unjust attack—might have led debate coverage and swung the dial back in Trump’s direction. Her willingness to take unfair flak and move on has long been one of Clinton’s defining features, but it shone through in her debate performance.
So to wrap up our debate analysis, below are five examples where Clinton resisted temptation and rose above.
Prompt #1 (Trump): And, Hillary, I’d just ask you this. You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you’ve been doing it, and now you’re just starting to think of solutions…I will bring — excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can’t bring back jobs
Pitfall: This is Trump’s most effective attack. For many voters without strong partisan ties or a strong grasp of the news or political detail, Clinton does seem to embody the problems of the status quo. Of course, she hasn’t “been doing this” for her entire life as Trump claimed. But what does it gain her to defensively explain that she wasn’t responsible for the financial crisis as a senator or the rise of ISIS as secretary of state?
Actual Response: Incomes went up for everybody. Manufacturing jobs went up also in the 1990s, if we’re actually going to look at the facts. When I was in the Senate, I had a number of trade deals that came before me, and I held them all to the same test. Will they create jobs in America? Will they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security? Some of them I voted for. The biggest one, a multinational one known as CAFTA, I voted against. And because I hold the same standards as I look at all of these trade deals. But let’s not assume that trade is the only challenge we have in the economy. I think it is a part of it, and I’ve said what I’m going to do. I’m going to have a special prosecutor. We’re going to enforce the trade deals we have, and we’re going to hold people accountable. When I was secretary of state, we actually increased American exports globally 30 percent. We increased them to China 50 percent. So I know how to really work to get new jobs and to get exports that helped to create more new jobs.
Verdict: Extremely effective response. She ignored Trump’s vague attack and shifted to her message: she has a record of creating jobs and she’s got something to offer those who are frustrated with current trade policy.
Prompt #2 (Holt): He also — he also raised the issue of your e-mails. Do you want to respond to that?
Pitfall: This goes without explaining. Questions regarding Clinton’s private email server and the subsequent FBI investigation into whether she sent classified information through a non-government email address have dogged her throughout the campaign. Even though she was cleared of wrongdoing by the FBI and the actual details of the alleged scandal are far more mundane than its breathless description by the pundit class, Clinton has been bedeviled by the episode’s complexity. She has failed thus far to come up with a clean and concise response that both expresses regret without admitting wrongdoing. A full-throated explanation of the details of government classification policy, although exculpatory and perhaps cathartic, does not accomplish that task.
Actual Response: I do. You know, I made a mistake using a private e- mail…And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I’m not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that.
Verdict: Good enough. Get in and get out. It didn’t convince anyone who was previously deeply troubled by the email question, but it also didn’t exacerbate the problem and allowed her to change the subject. It also helped that Trump was too scatterbrained to follow up and press the issue.
Prompt #3 (Trump): I do want to bring up the fact that you were the one that brought up the words super-predator about young black youth. And that’s a term that I think was a — it’s — it’s been horribly met, as you know. I think you’ve apologized for it. But I think it was a terrible thing to say.
And when it comes to stop-and-frisk, you know, you’re talking about takes guns away. Well, I’m talking about taking guns away from gangs and people that use them. And I don’t think — I really don’t think you disagree with me on this, if you want to know the truth. I think maybe there’s a political reason why you can’t say it, but I really don’t believe — in New York City, stop-and-frisk, we had 2,200 murders, and stop-and-frisk brought it down to 500 murders. Five hundred murders is a lot of murders. It’s hard to believe, 500 is like supposed to be good? But we went from 2,200 to 500. And it was continued on by Mayor Bloomberg. And it was terminated by current mayor. But stop-and- frisk had a tremendous impact on the safety of New York City. Tremendous beyond belief. So when you say it has no impact, it really did. It had a very, very big impact.
Pitfall: Clinton has been confronted from the left by Black Lives Matter activists for her husband’s 1994 crime bill and her ill-advised comments against inner city “super predators.” It’s a smart attack from Trump, who hopes to win suburban white voters made uncomfortable by his racist comments. Since he can’t be made less racist, he can at least drag her down into the mud with him.
Actual Response: Well, it’s also fair to say, if we’re going to talk about mayors, that under the current mayor, crime has continued to drop, including murders… New York — New York has done an excellent job. And I give credit — I give credit across the board going back two mayors, two police chiefs, because it has worked. And other communities need to come together to do what will work, as well. Look, one murder is too many. But it is important that we learn about what has been effective. And not go to things that sound good that really did not have the kind of impact that we would want. Who disagrees with keeping neighborhoods safe? But let’s also add, no one should disagree about respecting the rights of young men who live in those neighborhoods. And so we need to do a better job of working, again, with the communities, faith communities, business communities, as well as the police to try to deal with this problem.
Verdict: Once again, she completely ignored the attack and refused to be on the defensive. She doesn’t need to defend herself against charges of racism from her opponent. By avoiding Trump’s pinpricks, she was able to shift to a centrist message on crime that can unite both African-Americans and suburban whites.
Prompt #4 (Trump): Sidney Blumenthal works for the campaign and close — very close friend of Secretary Clinton. And her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, went to — during the campaign, her campaign against President Obama, fought very hard. And you can go look it up, and you can check it out…And if you look at CNN this past week, Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened. Blumenthal sent McClatchy, highly respected reporter at McClatchy, to Kenya to find out about it. They were pressing it very hard. She failed to get the birth certificate.
Pitfall: Getting dragged into false equivalency on the birther issue.
Actual Response: No response at all on these charges. She just moved on to Trump’s history of racism.
Verdict: She didn’t take the bait and the cable networks won’t have any clips of her getting into Trump’s mess of birther distractions and lies.
Prompt #5 (Trump): Well, first I have to say one thing, very important. Secretary Clinton is talking about taking out ISIS. “We will take out ISIS.” Well, President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq, because they got out — what, they shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed. So she talks about taking them out. She’s been doing it a long time. She’s been trying to take them out for a long time. But they wouldn’t have even been formed if they left some troops behind, like 10,000 or maybe something more than that. And then you wouldn’t have had them. Or, as I’ve been saying for a long time, and I think you’ll agree, because I said it to you once, had we taken the oil — and we should have taken the oil — ISIS would not have been able to form either, because the oil was their primary source of income. And now they have the oil all over the place, including the oil — a lot of the oil in Libya, which was another one of her disasters.
Pitfall: ISIS is somewhat of a political weakness for Clinton. Voters are concerned about Obama’s approach and are drawn to Trump’s rhetoric of strength. Plus, Trump uses ISIS’s growth during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State as an effective cudgel. A weak response defending her actions during ISIS’s rise might leave voters underwhelmed.
Actual Response: Well, I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really working hard. Donald supported the invasion of Iraq…That is absolutely proved over and over again…He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gadhafi be taken out, after actually doing some business with him one time…But the larger point — and he says this constantly — is George W. Bush made the agreement about when American troops would leave Iraq, not Barack Obama. And the only way that American troops could have stayed in Iraq is to get an agreement from the then-Iraqi government that would have protected our troops, and the Iraqi government would not give that. But let’s talk about the question you asked, Lester. The question you asked is, what do we do here in the United States? That’s the most important part of this. How do we prevent attacks? How do we protect our people?
Verdict: Instead, she just shifted the conversation to Trump’s earlier lie that he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 before ending with a positive, pragmatic appeal.
The debate showcased not only a man insecure enough to respond to every slight, but also a woman tough enough to absorb unjust attacks in stride. It’s pretty clear which approach is more presidential.