The third presidential debate is in the books, and while the noisiest news coming out of it is about a petulant white nationalist blustering on stage about whether or not he’ll concede the election if he loses, as if that matters for the legal transfer of power (it doesn’t; it’s just that if he doesn’t, he makes himself look even more like a child than he already does), the most interesting thing about the debate — and all the debates, if you ask me — is how very fine a job Hillary Clinton did in each of them. Not just for herself, although she did just fine for herself in each of them, answering in detail when she chose to, and generally effectively deflecting when she didn’t.
No, her real skill was in getting Donald Trump to self-own, debate after debate. There’s the saying that one should not interrupt an enemy when he’s making a mistake; well, Clinton didn’t interrupt Trump, but she did prompt him, winding him up and then letting him spew, not only on the debate stage, but on Twitter and in rallies afterward. She wound him up and let him flail ineffectually at her, as if his onstage taunts and bluster were anything compared to what she’s put up with for over 30 years, but well aware how Trump grumbling that she was nasty or how he was going to put her in jail would play to the large majority of America that isn’t circling around in Trump’s ouroboros of denial. She positioned him to lie and lie again, not just about political subjects in general, but about what’s actually come out of his very own mouth. She made him make himself look like a fool, and she did it without breaking a sweat.
Ezra Klein of Vox has a longer piece on what Clinton was up to and how she did it, which I largely agree with, so I won’t go further into it here. Suffice to say, however, that Clinton played him, once, twice, three times (a lady!), and he never seemed to figure it out. But then, why would he? Trump is apparently mentally unable to conceive of being dunked on by a woman, which left Clinton free to dunk on him at will. Trump has no one to blame but himself — not that he would ever do that — but Clinton gets all the credit for happily exploiting his weaknesses.
This is one reason, incidentally, why the current GOP shibboleth that Clinton would have been defeatable if only she had been up against a different candidate is mostly wishful thinking. Clinton isn’t winning just because she’s up against Trump, and she didn’t cream Trump in the debates just because Trump is so very fabulously incompetent. She’s winning because she’s prepared — she knows her opponent, she knows his weaknesses, and she made him reveal them himself. And she would have done it to anyone the GOP would have thrown her way.
Honestly, now: Does anyone really think that Clinton wouldn’t have shredded Ted Cruz, that pulsating globule of smugness, in any debate they might have had? Yes, Cruz was a nationally-ranked debater in college. That’s very nice for him. Clinton would have walked him into his own wankery, the off-putting self-regard that makes everyone want to find a way to stop talking to him five seconds after he opens his mouth, and let that awfulness happen while he spewed his dominionist nonsense. And let’s not even imagine what she would have done to poor, unprepared Marco Rubio, although the words “chew toy” do come to mind.
Indeed, the only person in the GOP field who I think would have given Clinton a run for her money might have been John Kasich, whose largely-pragmatic and well-seasoned demeanor is not terribly dissimilar to Clinton’s. But the GOP’s not about pragmatic and well-seasoned anymore, and even then I think Clinton would have his number sooner than later — he’s got a temper on him, and she’d poke him until he popped. A Kasich-Clinton debate score would be closer, with no knockouts on either side, but I think in the end she’d win on points.
The fact is, Clinton is and continues to be underappreciated for her own hard-won political skills. It’s easy to say she’s not a natural politician like her husband or Barack Obama (the latter comment being ironic, considering how many comparisons to Spock he endured early on), but here’s a point to consider about “natural” talents — they can be lazy, because, after all, if you can get the “A” with almost no effort, why go for the “A+”? Trust me, I know a little bit about the laziness of “natural talent” and how difficult it is to put in the extra work to go from merely good to something better.
Clinton is not a natural politician. She works and works and works and makes a better effort than everyone around her and just keeps on coming. And if people underestimate how formidable that makes her, as Trump so obviously has, and as smarter politicians than Trump also have and continue to do despite all available evidence? Well, I suspect that’s just fine with her. She’ll do to them what she did to Trump in the debates. And then she’ll keep going.