There are at least two things we know about Hillary Clinton as a politician: that she built a reputation as a good listener, and that she’s unflappable. Those two qualities were on full display last night at the presidential debate between her and Donald Trump.
But it was her quiet ability to withstand the blows without so much as flinching, let Trump go at her, again and again, without once taking the bait, without once withering in the heat, that proved she has the qualities befitting a president. And man, did that seem to irritate Trump.
It started from the get-go. When Trump patronizingly asked Clinton how he should refer to her: “Secretary Clinton, yes? Is that okay? I want you to be very happy,” she seemed amused. When Trump hammered her about her position on major trade deals, accusing her of flip-flopping, she calmly shut him down: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”
Trump’s affinity for drama is well-documented, dating way back to his 'Apprentice' days, when he’d make contestants effectively dance for their supper.
When her answers became windy or wonky, and he’d interrupt her, Clinton just kept talking. When he attacked her on those damn emails, she said simply that she’d made a mistake and left it at that. When Trump gave his ridiculous and offensive defense of birtherism — even taking responsibility for forcing President Obama to release his birth certificate — Hillary Clinton responded coolly: “Just listen to what you heard.” Trump’s affinity for drama is well-documented, dating way back to his Apprentice days, when he’d make contestants effectively dance for their supper. Trump presided over that fake boardroom table as those wannabe Trumpkins went toe-to-toe with him — after all, it made for such entertaining TV — encouraging them to throw people under busses while pleading for their TV lives.
He’s deployed the same formula over the past year to nab the GOP nomination, pummeling his fellow Republicans with juvenile epithets and drawing them into his game.
He’s deployed the same formula over the past year to nab the GOP nomination, pummeling his fellow Republicans with juvenile epithets and drawing them into his game. Rather than attack candidates on their policies or records, he makes it personal. He questioned whether Ted Cruz was really an American and spread a rumor that Cruz’s father had something to do with the assassination of JFK. No matter that it wasn’t true. He dubbed Rubio “Little Marco,” and the two famously got into a spat — at a primary debate no less — over the size of their, ahem, hands. Later Rubio expressed regret: "My kids were embarrassed by it. My wife didn’t like it…That’s not who I am," Rubio told Megyn Kelly.
Hillary Clinton long ago learned to let the insults roll off her back. And in doing so, she’s uncovered Trump’s Achilles' heel.
But Hillary Clinton is a different kind of adversary, and Trump’s playbook proved far less effective during their first debate. For one thing, Trump’s attacks on women don’t work nearly as well as his attacks on men. When the context isn’t so explicitly for entertainment value — when so many women see themselves in Hillary’s exhausting and exhaustive efforts to impress and satisfy the interminably unsatisfied men in her professional life — Trump’s haranguing shtick proves far less effective. And unlike pretty much every other candidate (or contestant) who’s tangled with Trump, Clinton’s been subject to 40 years of hurtful revelations and attacks by political foes. The net result: Hillary Clinton long ago learned to let the insults roll off her back. And in doing so, she’s uncovered Trump’s Achilles' heel. Clinton’s ability to listen and roll with the punches all culminated in the winning moment of the night. When moderator Lester Holt tried to ask Donald Trump about his judgment, specifically with regard to his stated support of the Iraq invasion, Trump cut him off.
Her next move should have been familiar to every parent in America who’s weathered the storm of a child’s tantrum. Clinton paused, shimmied her shoulders, and laughed. 'Woo! Okay!'
"I did not support the war in Iraq,” he said angrily. (Go ahead and pinpoint a single flicker of anger from Clinton during the entire debate.) Then he followed with a rambling diatribe against the “mainstream media,” invoking Howard Stern, (perhaps the first and only time the shock jock will come up in a presidential debate), Fox News host Neil Cavuto, and some private conversations with Sean Hannity (“everybody refuses to call Sean Hannity!”). Not two minutes later, he declared, “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win.”
When it was over, Clinton seemed pleased. She’d let Trump’s top spin and spin, until, weary and out of momentum, he finally stopped. Even the audience took a breath, taking in the blowhard’s rhetorical salad of riled-up, inchoate jabber from this, the GOP candidate for president. Her next move should have been familiar to every parent in America who’s weathered the storm of a child’s tantrum. Clinton paused, shimmied her shoulders, and laughed. “Woo! Okay!” Yep.
Say this for Clinton: She figured out what Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and nearly a dozen more couldn’t all those months ago. There’s power and even triumph in stepping back and letting your opponent talk himself into a hole. The more Trump flashes that temperament, the more presidential Clinton looks.
Refinery29 has partnered with more than 50 of the country's biggest women's media brands and political nonprofit Rock The Vote to register 100,000 women to vote. Become a voter today by signing up with #OurVoteCounts below.