Opinion | Hillary Clinton: I’ve Debated Trump and Biden. Here’s What I’m Watching For.

Equipo
By Equipo
12 Min Read

Last week, I had the time of my life at the Tony Awards introducing a song from “Suffs,” the Broadway musical I co-produced about the suffragists who won women the right to vote. I was thrilled when the show took home the awards for best original score and best book.

From “Suffs” to “Hamilton,” I love theater about politics. But not the other way around. Too often we approach pivotal moments like this week’s debate between President Biden and Donald Trump like drama critics. We’re picking a president, not “best actor.”

I am the only person to have debated both men (Mr. Trump in 2016 and, in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary race, Senator Biden). I know the excruciating pressure of walking onto that stage and that it is nearly impossible to focus on substance when Mr. Trump is involved. In our three debates in 2016, he unleashed a blizzard of interruptions, insults and lies that overwhelmed the moderators and did a disservice to the voters who tuned in to learn about our visions for the country — including a record 84 million viewers for our first debate.

It is a waste of time to try to refute Mr. Trump’s arguments like in a normal debate. It’s nearly impossible to identify what his arguments even are. He starts with nonsense and then digresses into blather. This has gotten only worse in the years since we debated. I was not surprised that after a recent meeting, several chief executives said that Mr. Trump, as one journalist described it, “could not keep a straight thought” and was “all over the map.” Yet expectations for him are so low that if he doesn’t literally light himself on fire on Thursday evening, some will say he was downright presidential.

Mr. Trump may rant and rave in part because he wants to avoid giving straight answers about his unpopular positions, like restrictions on abortion, giving tax breaks to billionaires and selling out our planet to big oil companies in return for campaign donations. He interrupts and bullies — even stalking me around the stage at one point — because he wants to appear dominant and throw his opponent off balance.

These ploys will fall flat if President Biden is as direct and forceful as he was when engaging Republican hecklers at the State of the Union address in March. The president also has facts and truth on his side. He led America’s comeback from a historic health and economic crisis, with more than 15 million jobs created so far, incomes for working families rising, inflation slowing and investments in clean energy and advanced manufacturing soaring. He’ll win if that story comes through.

In 2016, I prepared intensely for the debates because I knew I had to find a way to cut through Mr. Trump’s antics and help the American people understand what was really at stake. In 90-minute mock debates on an identical stage, I practiced keeping my cool in the face of hard questions and outright lies about my record and character. A longtime adviser played Mr. Trump and did everything he could to provoke, rattle, and enrage me. It worked.

Unfortunately, Mr. Biden starts from a disadvantage because there’s no way he can spend as much time preparing as I did eight years ago. Being president isn’t just a day job; it’s an everything-everywhere-all-at-once job. Historically, that has led to weaker first debate performances for the incumbent.

As viewers, we should try not to get hung up on the theatrics. Here are three things to watch for instead.

First, pay attention to how the candidates talk about people, not just policies. In my third debate with Mr. Trump, he promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. I responded that this would have real consequences for real women. Mr. Trump had already said women should be punished for getting abortions. “You should meet with some of the women I’ve met with,” I told him. “I’ve been to countries where governments either forced women to have abortions, like they used to do in China, or forced women to bear children like they used to do in Romania. And I can tell you, the government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice.”

On Thursday, Mr. Trump will most likely say he wants to leave abortion to the states. He hopes that sounds moderate. But it really means he’s endorsing the most extreme abortion bans already imposed by many states and all the extreme restrictions to come. Mr. Trump should have to answer for the 12-year-old girl in Mississippi who was raped and then forced to carry a child to term. She started the seventh grade with a newborn because of her state’s draconian abortion ban. It’s because of Mr. Trump that in Louisiana a young girl unable to get an abortion went into labor clutching a teddy bear. Studies find that women living under abortion bans are up to three times more likely to die during pregnancy, childbirth or soon after giving birth. Because of Mr. Trump, one in three women of reproductive age now lives under such restrictions.

Mr. Biden is one of the most empathetic leaders we’ve ever had. Listen to how sincerely he talks about women’s rights, the struggles of working families, opportunities for people of color and the courage of Ukrainian men and women risking their lives for democracy. Mr. Trump can’t do that because he cares only about himself.

Second, try to see through the bluster and focus on the fundamentals at stake. In 2016, Mr. Trump refused to say whether he would accept the results of the election. “I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said. “That is not the way our democracy works,” I responded. “Let’s be clear about what he’s saying and what that means.” You can draw a straight line from that exchange to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

This time, expect Mr. Trump to blame Mr. Biden for inflation but avoid answering questions about his own economic plans. He has to deflect or lie because his proposals — tax cuts for the superrich, gutting the Affordable Care Act, deporting millions of workers and slapping across-the-board tariffs on everyday goods — would exacerbate inflation, raise costs for American households and cause a recession. That’s not my prediction; it’s from Wall Street’s Moody’s Analytics. Experts at the nonpartisan Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated that Mr. Trump’s tariffs alone would mean, in effect, a $1,700 tax increase each year for the average American family — or more.

For his part, Mr. Biden is clearly eager to talk about his plans to lower costs. He has stood up to powerful pharmaceutical companies by capping the cost of insulin and signing a law to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices for the first time. On Thursday, listen for plans to take on corporate price gouging and make gas, groceries and housing more affordable. The president has already helped one in 10 Americans with federal student loans get much-needed relief. He most likely will be ready to offer more ideas for how to help young people get a strong start and afford a middle-class life.

Third, when you see these two men side by side, think about the real choice in this election. It’s between chaos and competence.

Mr. Trump has been convicted of 34 felonies and found liable for sexual assault and financial fraud. He’s spent a lifetime putting himself first. If he gets back to the White House, we’ll have more inflation and less freedom. It won’t just be a rerun of his first term. Since losing in 2020, Mr. Trump has become angrier and more unhinged. His former secretary of defense says he is “a threat to democracy.” His former chief of staff says he “has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution and the rule of law.” Remember that on Thursday when you hear Mr. Trump recite his grievances and vow retribution.

By contrast, Mr. Biden is a wise and decent man who is fighting hard for working families. Yes, he’s 81. That’s just three years older than Mr. Trump. And his lifetime of service and experience helps him get things done that make our country stronger and all of our lives better, from bringing Democrats and Republicans together to fix crumbling roads and bridges to standing up to Russian aggression.

This election is between a convicted criminal out for revenge and a president who delivers results for the American people. No matter what happens in the debate, that’s an easy choice.

Hillary Rodham Clinton was the Democratic nominee for president in 2016 and is a former U.S. secretary of state and senator from New York.

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