Why Only a Woman Can Win a Debate Against Trump

Philippe Reines is a former deputy assistant secretary of state & senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, co-host of the “UNREDACTED” podcast, and a visiting lecturer at Tufts University’s Tisch College.

As Hillary Clinton’s sparring partner in her 2016 general election debate prep, I was part of the team that helped get her ready for both the predictable and the unthinkable. And despite what happened on election night, to most of America there was no question she won those debates.

So when a Democrat says the party needs someone who can out-Donald Donald in 2020, I stop listening. We already have a Donald. And to give credit where credit is due, he nails the part. Beating Trump does not require becoming Trump. If it did, we could go ahead and swear Alec Baldwin in as the 46th president of the United States.

Instead, Democrats need someone whose natural self matches up well against Trump’s preternatural self. Someone who can calmly respond to him but—and here’s the hard part—does not respond to his attacks with a faux-macho mirror image. It’s that second response that Trump is so good at triggering in his opponents, especially the male ones. And responding to Trumpian chest-beating with wannabe-Trumpian chest-beating doesn’t work.

Which is exactly why I think, contrary to some Democratic voters’ worries, a woman nominee might be our best bet in 2020. Tonight’s debate could be further proof.

The men in this field—and men in general—are easier to rile up and are more likely to meet antagonization with aggression. When former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Cory Booker both expressed in passing wanting to beat up Trump in recent months, that was an understandable impulse—but one that’s likely to look phony and awkward in a matchup with Trump.

Trump relishes going after male insecurities in particular. Low energy. Little. And he’s effective at it. “OK, Jeb wants to be a tough guy,” he said during one spat over eminent domain with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in a debate in early 2016. Bush appeared clearly unsettled, quick to attack back in kind rather than respond as Jeb. In doing so, Bush doubly lost. Trump had synthesized a genuine vulnerability in how Jeb was perceived. And Jeb’s flustered response was equally damaging.

Sen. Marco Rubio took it one step further. After one debate, Rubio had had enough. “I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats,” Trump said about Rubio at one point during a primary debate. Rubio’s response? Nothing more than an open-mic imitation of Trumpian insults aimed at Donald. “He was having a meltdown,” he said about Trump at a rally in February 2016. “First he had this little makeup thing, applying, like, makeup around his mustache because he had one of those sweat mustaches,” Rubio said. “He’s like 6’2,” Rubio said later, “which is why I don’t understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5’2.” How did that go? We know what happened to “Little Marco.”

In other words, Trump is successful at getting the reaction he wants—especially out of men.

Trump tried it with Hillary in 2016 but failed. When he hovered over her during the second debate when she was speaking, a heavily memed moment on social media, Hillary continued along, not letting it knock her off her stride. Many—including Hillary herself—have wondered what would have happened had she swung around and told him to back off. I tried getting that reaction out of Hillary, too. As people present can attest, I subjected her to plenty of vicious, obnoxious, rude, boorish, juvenile and undignified behavior. Randomly interjecting the fact she failed the bar exam. Tapping on and complaining about the microphone (believe it or not, before he actually did so after the first debate). Asking if she needed a nap or to cut the debate short. Pulling blank pieces of paper out of my jacket to point to as proof of whatever I was lying about. Acknowledging the people in the audience nodding in agreement with me—despite there not being an audience. (One person said I was chosen for the role because I had been auditioning for it my whole life but just didn’t know it.) Hillary was successful because she didn’t take the bait—and also because she didn’t let Trump force her to be someone she wasn’t.

The biggest problem with Booker and Biden’s approach is that the macho overcompensating is simply not who they really are.

Booker is known for fighting political mudslinging with declarations of love. In his memoir, Booker described a (sort of) standoff with his political rival when he was on the Newark City Council, Mayor Sharpe James. Booker wrote, “some people probably expected me to take a jab at the mayor or to slight him in some way.” But after more than a week of fasting, “I felt light; I felt no negative emotions whatsoever.” Same goes for Biden. While Biden pulls it off better, when criticized for Trump-esque tough talk, he has been pressured into apologizing. If you’re going to mimic Trump, go full Trump and never regret. But don’t swing between being a fighter and being a lover.

When confronted with Trump’s attacks, my worry is a male opponent might prove that boys will in fact be boys. But women are less susceptible to this particular variety of bullying. Maybe that’s because it’s harder to go after a woman in the same way, as Hillary’s Senate debates in 2000 with then-Republican Rep. Rick Lazio showed, when his invasion of her personal space didn’t go over well with people watching. Or maybe it’s because so many of Trump’s attacks appear aimed at his rivals’ masculinity—but women, of course, are safe on that front.

Regardless, women appear better at weathering Hurricane Trump than men. Case in point: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Over the past two years she has proven to have Trump’s number better than anyone. She is proof girls won’t be boys. At a meeting with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the Oval Office about the shutdown in December, she spoke quietly and calmly, but she was tough, too. As she was speaking, she branded it the “Trump shutdown.” Trump looked up quickly. “The what?” Clearly incensed, he said he would be “proud to shut down the government.” Right then, Pelosi won the shutdown battle before it even began.

But imagine for a moment the town hall format in which Trump and a male opponent are free to roam the stage and get in each other’s faces. Sound crazy? It’s not. In one of their 2000 debates, Al Gore wandered a little too close to George W. Bush’s comfort zone. Bush made his point with a subtle but clear facial expression. (By the way, Bush’s debate prep team had anticipated and practiced for the scenario.) Bush won the moment. It’s impossible to imagine actual fisticuffs ensuing during a 2020 general election debate. But it’s very possible to imagine a moment where neither man looks good. And when neither man looks good, the one from whom more is expected is the loser. No matter who the Democratic nominee is, Trump won’t be the one heading into a debate with the higher expectations.

So herein lies the challenge, and the opportunity to see how candidates handle necessary course corrections. Who can stand up to Trump’s lying and impulsiveness without overcompensating, without swinging too far the other way?

I believe any of the woman candidates is better equipped to face Trump in a debate because they will not swing as wildly as men are likely to do. There’s obviously a larger conversation about sexism and misogyny affecting a female candidate while males face no such headwind—but on a debate stage against Trump, women have the upper hand.

Specifically, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is underappreciated as a potential Trump foe. She might have a narrower margin of victory relative to a hypothetical matchup with Trump compared with the other candidates, but dating back to 2017, she has weathered the most sustained attacks from him. And she has done it by remaining focused on her own plans and sticking with her strategy. I’d expect her to do the same when faced with those attacks on a debate stage—which she’s already thinking about. Last month, she said, “You don’t back down from a bully. … Nobody’s getting behind me on a debate stage and doing a handsy thing. That’s not happening.” Hillary facing it last time allows a woman to confront it head-on next time.

Sen. Kamala Harris seems more than ready to coolly, clinically expose Trump. Her pointed questioning of Brett Kavanaugh stood out during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In the first debate, she may have asked for more time to respond, but she did not need to shout when she upended Biden’s defense of his busing record. And her performance was effective.

There are men, certainly, who also seem less likely to cave to Trump’s baiting. Sen. Bernie Sanders for instance, has one gear, and that gear is, shall we say, emphatic. I don’t think Trump can unleash a new side to Bernie—which would be an advantage for the senator.

And Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s quiet confidence is perfectly suited to expose Trump’s loud insecurity.

Will a woman’s possible advantage debating Trump mean anything for the election? Going into 2016’s first debate, Hillary and Trump were effectively tied. After the third debate three weeks later, Clinton opened her most commanding lead. And despite what happened on election night, nobody should write off the importance of debates in 2020.

Those who worry a woman as nominee would face the same obstacles Hillary did are right to do so. But the unique strengths of a female nominee (or a two-woman ticket) might be the solution to the unique problems posed by Trump.

The question to ask might not be: Can a woman beat Trump? The real question is: Can a man?

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