Vox: Hillary Clinton’s Debate Strategy Left Trump Campaign in Ruins

Ezra Klein: Donald Trump didn’t just destroy himself. Hillary Clinton destroyed him.

Ezra Klein at Vox offers a brilliant analysis of Hillary Clinton’s unique and extremely effective strategy of using Donald Trump’s personal weaknesses to bait him during the presidential debates.

From Vox.com:

It began in the first debate. “Donald,” she kept saying. No one quite knows why Trump so loathes the sound of his first name, but he does. He quickly tried to shame Clinton into showing him more respect. “Secretary Clinton — yes, is that okay?” he said, after she once again called him Donald. “Good. I want you to be very happy. It’s very important to me.”

Clinton’s next answer: “In fact, Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis…”

Each debate has followed the same pattern. Trump begins calm, but as Clinton needles him, he falls apart, gets angrier, launches bizarre personal attacks, offers rambling justifications for his own behavior, and loses the thread of whatever question was actually asked of him.

Clinton, meanwhile, crisply summarizes the binders full of policy information she absorbed before the debate. The gap in preparation, knowledge, and basic competence has been evident in every contest, and it’s led to polls showing that even voters who loathe Clinton recognize she’s far more qualified and capable than Trump. Nor does Clinton make mistakes — she’s often criticized for being careful and bland in her answers, but here it’s helped her, as she’s never taken the headlines away from Trump’s own gaffes.

But Trump’s true meltdown was triggered in a specific moment at the end of the first debate.

HOLT: We are at — we are at the final question.

CLINTON: Well, one thing. One thing, Lester.

HOLT: Very quickly, because we’re at the final question now.

CLINTON: You know, he tried to switch from looks to stamina. But this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs, and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said…

TRUMP: I never said that.

CLINTON: …women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men.

TRUMP: I didn’t say that.

CLINTON: And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman “Miss Piggy.” Then he called her “Miss Housekeeping,” because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.

TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?

CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.

TRUMP: Where did you find this?

CLINTON: And she has become a US citizen, and you can bet…

TRUMP: Oh, really?

CLINTON: …she’s going to vote this November.

This was the beginning of Trump’s collapse. He would spend the next few days litigating and relitigating his humiliation of Machado. He took to Twitter in the middle of the night to tell Americans to watch a sex tape of Machado that didn’t exist.

The moment set in motion all that came next. It set off the explosive debate about the language Trump uses to talk about women. It was the context for the leaked audio of Trump from 2005. It’s what led Trump to go full Breitbart and try to turn the second debate into a referendum on Bill Clinton’s sexual past — a strategy that top Republicans had warned him against, and that widened the gap between the GOP and its presidential nominee.

Clinton was able to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue in part because she and her campaign had prepared to make Trump’s treatment of women the issue, and in part because she is a woman and her assault on Trump flummoxed his usual mode of defense, which is to dominate and insult the other men on the stage. By the end of the final debate, Trump was reduce to spitting that Clinton was “such a nasty woman,” a line that spoke to both his horror at being challenged by a woman and his complete inability to control what came out of his mouth after 80 minutes on a stage with Clinton.

Two things have been true throughout the debates. One is that Trump has been, at every turn, underprepared, undisciplined, and operating completely without a strategy. In one of the third debate’s most unintentionally revealing moments, Trump said, “I sat in my apartment today … watching ad after false ad, all paid for by your friends on Wall Street,” an inadvertent admission that he was inhaling cable news when he should have been prepping for the debate.

But the other reality is that Clinton has been, at every turn, prepared, disciplined, and coldly strategic. She triggered Trump’s epic meltdown purposely, and kept Trump off balance over multiple weeks that probably represented his last chance to turn the election around. She was ready for every question, prepared for every attack, and managed to goad Trump into making mistakes that became the main story the day after every single debate.

It is easy, now, to assume her victory was assured, to read Trump’s collapse as inevitable. But remember that he triumphed over a talented, 17-person Republican field in debate after debate to win the primary — one-on-one contests are unique, it’s true, but there was no particular reason to think Trump couldn’t use his bullying, blustering showmanship to take over the stage and expose Clinton as inauthentic and out of touch. The reason he didn’t is because she never let him.

We aren’t used to this kind of victory. We aren’t used to candidates winning not so much because of how they performed but because of how they pushed their opponent into performing. But the fact that we aren’t used to this kind of victory doesn’t make it any less impressive. Hillary Clinton has humbled Donald Trump, and she did it her way.

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