Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 26, 2016

Who is the Toughest of Them All?

By David K. Shipler

            The answer, which should be obvious by now, is Hillary Clinton. A good many of Donald Trump’s supporters like him for his supposed toughness, but the three presidential debates, combined with his “whining” on the campaign trail (President Obama’s word), exposed his weak-kneed nature as a vulnerable personality who couldn’t hold his own in a face-off with a foreign leader if his country’s security depended on it—which it would.
In the debates, he was easily rattled. He meandered off subject. He couldn’t muster hard facts and bring a thought to a persuasive conclusion. In a summit meeting, the likes of Vladimir Putin would eat him alive, both by flattery and stiletto argument. Trump would either give away the store, make agreements he’d later disavow, or stomp his foot in temper tantrums. Never in this campaign has he demonstrated any talent for the tricky diplomatic negotiation, despite his dubious boasts about his commercial deal-making.
By contrast, he and his fellow Republicans have given Clinton a stage to show her grit. During hours of small-minded grilling on Benghazi by Congressional Republicans, she stayed steadfast, cool, and professional. They failed to dent her armor.
Nor did she flinch when Trump, in a tactic of cruelty, used four women as props to poison the gathering for the second debate. The age-old practice of blaming the victim of sexual misdeeds, in this case the wife of the philanderer, backfired.
Evidently pained but not shaken, Hillary Clinton stood and took Trump’s assaults resolutely. Imagine. Imagine having to retain composure and mental acuity before millions, in the company of women with whom your husband has allegedly cheated. Whatever her reasons for staying with Bill—love or ambition—Hillary has emerged as someone not easily provoked or pushed around. This is reassuring in a president.
 She has flaws, no doubt, including ethical lapses and secretive impulses. She seems averse to transparency and fudges policy positions to please her audience, in the tradition of most politicians. Yet this campaign has shown her to have more of an iron backbone than previously understood, suggesting a steadiness of the kind needed in the Oval Office, where pressures are incalculable and life-and-death decisions are unavoidable. Impulsive bullying, vague innuendo, and spineless weaving to avoid the kind of humiliation that Trump fears just don’t work in that job.
If there is such a thing as an ironic favor, Trump did several for Clinton. He tested her in ways that made her look more and more solid as time went on. He gave her supporters a snappy line when he called her a “nasty woman” in the third debate. The phrase was picked up with alacrity by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who told a rally in New Hampshire, “Get this, Donald. Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote.” T-shirts sprang up overnight reading, “Nasty Women Vote.”
There is a risk, however, in a president who is too tough, too armored, too deft at confrontation. Clinton is poised to over-correct a double stereotype, of Democrats and of women. The false image of Democrats as soft on national security, the result of Republican propaganda, has taken root with a good number of Americans. The assumption that a woman in the White House will be too conciliatory, too malleable, too forgiving, too indulgent is one that Clinton seems determined to debunk with a fairly hawkish foreign policy. Numerous former Republican national security officials feel comfortable enough to endorse her.
On Russia, for example, she has taken advantage of Trump’s odd courtship with Vladimir Putin to paint Moscow, in echoes of the Cold War, as aggressive and threatening far beyond the reality. With apparent relish, she has pummeled Trump with his own blundering on Russia, as expected in a campaign.
What is clever politics can be clumsy foreign policy, however, and if she is elected and sticks by her adversarial posture, she will have painted herself into a corner from which she can’t easily exit toward collaborative, working relationships where both countries have overlapping interests: Syria, terrorism, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, and the like. On that point, Trump has the right instinct, albeit inarticulately expressed.

American voters are a tough crowd, across the spectrum. We expect the same of a president. But many of us also want compassion and empathy, noble vision and high principles of social conscience. The ability to blend those attributes with steely resilience is a gift that Hillary Clinton may or may not have. Hopefully, we’ll get to find out, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as her gadflies in a Democratic-led Senate.    

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