Television has done it again. It has once again changed the direction of a presidential election, and this time Hillary Clinton was the beneficiary — and she probably doesn’t even know why.
In 1960, a sweaty Richard Nixon ran headfirst into an opponent who loved the camera, and the sentiment was mutual — the camera loved him. It launched John F. Kennedy into the White House, and sent Richard Nixon back to the drawing board to design a way to deal with a new medium that did not naturally favor him. In 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan was fighting the widely held perception that he might be a bit unhinged, an extremist you wouldn’t want with his finger “on the button.” But when he looked knowledgeable and downright charming in his debate with President Jimmy Carter ― “There you go again…” ― and asked the simple question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”, the dynamic of the election changed. People overcame their reservations about the former actor and California governor and he won 44 states. If Hillary Clinton goes on to win in November, you can go back to last night to explain when Americans saw a different Hillary Clinton, one they envision in the White House again, but this time in another role, as the executive in charge. It came after she beat a reality TV star at his own game.
Over the past year and a half, Donald Trump has been consistently brilliant in using the medium to his benefit. His personality and comfort on screen clearly overshadowed 16 Republican rivals. And he has been relentless in creating an image of himself in the Oval Office. “When I’m President, I’m going to cut taxes.” “I’m gonna build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.” “We’re going to make America great again.” Even if you don’t agree with his politics, you can still picture him trying to execute his policies from the Chief Executive position. He puts that visual in your head and he keeps your attention on screen. Everyone agrees — he’s good TV. And whether the people at his rallies agree with him on every issue or not is essentially moot — they know they’re going to get a show. (”What are we gonna build?” “A wall!” “And who’s gonna pay for it?” “Mexico!”)
But as much as Trump tries to hold Hillary herself responsible for anything that has gone wrong during her professional career the past couple decades, she actually hasn’t been in an executive role, center stage. She has been in the picture, but literally and figuratively off to the side. She was a First Lady. Not an executive. She was a Senator. Not an executive. She was Secretary of State. Not an executive. She ran for president in 2008, but Barack Obama stole the attention. Hillary has never been “good TV.”
Last night, she was. Hillary stood toe to toe – or side by side on your TV screen – with the candidate that established his reputation as the billionaire businessman, the executive in charge, the one in the middle of the stage and the one the spotlight is trained on. She was right there on the screen with him, an equal to the all-powerful TV star with a nickname — “The Donald.” Forget the details. Never mind the talking points. Think about the image — it was right there on your TV. Somebody decided that both candidates would be on camera every single moment of the debate. And the way she handled it allowed her to win the night.
Trump sniffled. Hillary was composed. Trump took a drink of water. Hillary was composed. Trump made faces. Hillary was composed. Trump sniffled and took another drink of water. Hillary was composed. Trump interrupted her. Hillary was composed.
She didn’t back down, she didn’t search for words, she looked physically and psychologically strong and popped off the television screen in a red dress and a timely smile that underscored her readiness for the moment. She actually took on a reality TV star and won the battle — on TV!
In comparison, the sniffling Donald Trump appeared to tire as the debate wore on. He didn’t say anything new. And he didn’t reveal anything in his personality or positions that would sway undecided voters – or, for that matter, alienate his committed supporters. It was the same Trump that we’ve seen the past year and a half.
Hillary, on the other hand, showed a different person. Virtually her entire life she has been waiting in the wings, always positioning herself for the ultimate role, but never quite in the position itself. Last night, she was center stage. Last night, the spotlight was on her and she didn’t move into the shadows.
There was only one Reagan-Carter debate, and it was a week before the election. It was too late for Carter to recover. But there is plenty of time this cycle, with two more scheduled debates for Trump to address whatever inadequacies may have resulted from his performance last night. And yes, next time, he’ll probably harp on the emails, and Benghazi, and ask how she plans to pay for this free tuition plan she talks about. But his advisors better also counsel him on his reality TV act. The first year of “The Apprentice” ended in 7th place. By its sixth season, it was in 75th place. It’s possible that his act is beginning to wear thin.
Hillary Clinton accomplished something significant last night. For the first time, America saw her in charge, standing next to a man who had beaten sixteen Republican candidates. She looked fresher, sounded stronger, and maintained a consistent energy level throughout the debate. Last night, the American people saw her as President.