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Even before the second presidential debate began Sunday night, we had a good idea about where Donald Trump wanted the discussion to go: the gutter. Roughly 90 minutes before the debate, he held a press conference with women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual assault decades ago. Then Trump sat them inside the debate hall.
The next question was what would Hillary Clinton do. Of course she spoke about a 2005 videotape that showed Trump making crude comments about women, especially when she was directly asked about it, but then what?
At first, Clinton seemed to signal she wouldn’t join Trump in the gutter. But after Trump brought up Bill Clinton’s accusers early on in the debate, she quoted Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Committee.
“When I hear something like that, I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all: When they go low, you go high,” Clinton said.
But then Hillary Clinton did the opposite. She went low.
Clinton got applause for the Obama remark, then continued, “And, look, if this were just about one video, maybe what he’s saying tonight would be understandable, but everyone can draw their own conclusions at this point about whether or not the man in the video or the man on the stage respects women. But he never apologizes for anything to anyone.”
And Clinton went on from there to discuss Trump’s attacks on the Gold Star Khan family and his mocking of a disabled reporter.
It may have been a mistake.
By going into the gutter, she may have allowed Trump to stay in the game. While much of the post-debate analysis has focused on whether Trump could stem the bleeding of his campaign, not enough attention was paid to the opposite question: Why didn’t Clinton put Trump away?
What would have happened if Clinton entertained questions about Trump’s taped comments and later the temporary Muslim immigration ban, and then pivoted not to put it in the broader context of what Trump represents, but to her own policy plans? Here’s one way she could have said it:
“We have children watching at home, and you want to see those comments that I think frankly disqualify him from being president, well there is YouTube. But this is a presidential debate, and you want to know what we will do as president, so here is my plan to create jobs,” she could have said.
There’s been evidence in the past two weeks that this was the obvious path. Clinton’s campaign rightly points out the campaign is being endorsed by newspapers who have not endorsed a Republican in 100 years or ever. Some magazines, like the Atlantic and Foreign Policy Magazine, are also breaking with tradition to endorse Clinton.
If you read those editorials, there is a different argument than the one Clinton presented at the debate. They are suggesting that there is only one person being serious about running for president. She could have suggested as much by invoking her litany of campaign proposals during the debate, in nearly every question.
Trump would no doubt pester her with phrases such as, “You don’t want to talk about XYZ past scandal.” But Clinton could respond, “Why don’t you want to engage on the issues?”
When the debate was over, one audience member, Ken Bone, was heaped with praise over his wonky question on energy policy. It was seen as the one moment of policy in a debate that otherwise did not include much of it.
Hillary Clinton may well win the presidential election over Trump. But when she is elected president and trying to move her policies forward, she may look back and wish she hadn’t been upstaged by Bone.
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