The biggest challenge Hillary Clinton’s been up against this election isn’t her pouting, potty-mouthed rival. No, the biggest challenge has always been herself—the eerie hollowness that makes people feel like they can’t know her or what she stands for.
At long last, the Clinton who took the stage Wednesday night wasn’t the policy-reciting pull-string doll we’ve seen throughout most of the last two debates. With Obama-like calm, she mostly dodged Trump’s efforts to bait her, speaking with more empathy, authority, and passion than we’ve seen so far.
Her biggest point of victory, however, was a gift from Trump himself. Chris Wallace, the moderator and by far the best we’ve seen in the last few elections, drilled Trump on his claims that the election might be rigged. “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense. OK?” Trump said.
Clinton nailed this. “Well, Chris, let me respond to that, because that’s horrifying,” she began. After noting Trump’s habit of calling conspiracy every time he’s losing, she continued:
Clinton: “That is not the way our democracy works. We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election. You know, President Obama said the other day when you’re whining before the game is even finished…
Wallace: Hold on. Hold on, folks. Hold on, folks.
Clinton: … it just shows you’re not up to doing the job. And let’s—you know, let’s be clear about what he is saying and what that means. He is denigrating—he’s talking down our democracy. And I, for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.
For those waiting for Clinton to seem ”presidential,” there’s your moment. Champion of democracy, defender of America’s history—you can’t get much more presidential than that.
That fact matters much more than “winning.” After the last month’s relentless cascade of ugliness, it’s been dawning on people that a Clinton presidency would be diminished if she wins only by virtue of having beaten Donald Trump.
Of course Clinton did “win” the previous two debates—as long as you’re measuring performance in zero-sum terms. She won the first debate by staying resolutely dorky when, 20 minutes in, Trump dissolved into a rabid fit of sniffing and snarling incoherence. The Access Hollywood tapes of Trump boasting of assaulting women that led into the second debate disqualified Trump from “winning” altogether. But the fact that he didn’t lose exactly left the entire country feeling awful.
Tonight, Trump helped Clinton rise above her rep as an establishment-boosting stooge of the status quo. Calmly, but firmly, she yanked us out of the cynical nightmare of Trump’s denials and doublespeak, and gave us a glimpse of a strange new land where people take pride in the basic integrity of America’s political tradition.