“I am not a natural politician,” Hillary Clinton said earlier in the year, “like my husband or President Obama.”
In many ways that’s true, but when it comes to debates, I think it’s fair to say that she’s not just better than Trump. She’s better than Obama or Bill Clinton. While Hillary isn’t too good at rallies (or press conferences, speeches or interviews) she has to be considered one of the most skilled debaters.
It is often forgotten but Hillary routinely beat Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary debates. Hillary also did better against Trump than Obama did against Romney in the general election debates in 2012. And according to Nate Silver’s analysis, Hillary’s debate victories were more dramatic even than Bill Clinton’s wins over George H.W. Bush. In fact, Silver writes, in terms of polls, she’s the most dominant debater in recent general elections.
What makes her so good?
First, she recognizes that winning a debate is about advancing an overall election strategy. For instance, rather than seeking a middle ground position on abortion (as I personally might have preferred, and as both Obama and Bill did) she had a disciplined understanding that her specific target audience – suburban Republican woman and unenthusiastic Bernie supporters – is unabashedly pro-choice. For a candidate often accused of hedging, she was unequivocal.
Trump’s strongest argument is one that he didn’t even use last night: what have you got to lose? If you want change, he’s change. That’s a pretty effective argument especially with voters who don’t have a great sense of what a president can and cannot do. She undercut that by again returning to the question of nuclear weapons, even though it wasn’t asked about.
Second, she set traps. As others have noted, she knew just how to poke his bulbous ego with a stick.
Most important, if Bill Clinton was the master of empathy and Barack Obama is an expert in inspiration, Hillary has a genius for self-control. How on earth did she stand there listening to his attacks without losing her game plan or mind? That’s hard. How did she know when to interrupt (to undercut his momentum) and when to allow him to hang himself with his own words? She had to make instantaneous judgments. She mostly struck the perfect balance, knowing when to hold back, when to counter-punch, when to needle and when to laugh.
She has many flaws as a candidate. But it’s time to recognize that at least when it comes to debates, she’s among the best.