Dan Rodricks

Clinton deftly unpacks Trump's prodigious baggage

I suppose other presidential candidates have carried more baggage into a debate -- a history of business failure, leadership in a racist smear campaign, a record of outrageous claims and offensive statements, a lame and suspicious excuse for not releasing income tax returns -- but it’s hard to think of one on the scale of Donald J. Trump. This man’s baggage would fill a Maersk Line cargo container, and so Hillary Clinton had more than enough material to unnerve Trump, put him on the defensive and keep him there for most of last night’s debate.
She managed to do this so much that Trump missed several opportunities to exploit Clinton’s shortcomings. His supporters will wonder why he did not hit harder on the email server controversy or Benghazi or the Clinton Foundation. It’s because he spent most of his time answering for his sordid past.
I cannot think of a presidential showdown in which so much of a candidate’s biography and record of controversial remarks were used so deftly against him by his opponent. By that measure, the first Trump-Clinton debate might have been historic.
At different points, Clinton went through Trump’s baggage, exploiting his Atlantic City bankruptcies, his obsessive efforts to prove President Barack Obama was not a native-born American and the 1973 allegations that Trump and his father had engaged in racial discrimination in the rental of apartments in New York City.
Trump’s degrading comments about a former Miss Universe and other women, his 2004 statement that a woman’s pregnancy was “certainly an inconvenience for a business,” his sexist claim that Clinton lacks the “stamina” to be president -- all had Trump frequently, perhaps nervously, reaching for a glass of water.
It was clear that, in addition to doing her homework on national security and domestic economic policy, Clinton had booked up on her opponent’s copious rhetorical record.
Trump has had a big, loud life. He’s developed fabulous hotels, casinos and golf courses. But he’s also run his mouth like a provocative talk-show host, making numerous radio and television appearances over years, leaving a digital trail of political and social commentary that has been fully examined as he runs for the nation’s highest office.
So, more than any other candidate in memory, he gives his opponent plenty of material for face pies, and we saw Clinton land several Monday night.
On foreign policy, she managed to draw attention to Trump’s general lack of knowledge -- on NATO’s role in the fight against terrorism, on the Bush administration’s agreement to a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, on how close Iran had come to nuclear weapons before agreeing to stop its development program.
The biggest face pie was on the question of Trump’s income tax returns. By not releasing them, claiming erroneously that he could not do so while being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, Trump left himself wide open.
“You've got to ask yourself,” Clinton said, “why won't he release his tax returns? I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he's not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he's not as charitable as he claims to be. . . . Or maybe he doesn't want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he's paid nothing in federal taxes.”

Trump responded, “That makes me smart.” He never directly refuted Clinton’s claim that he paid no taxes. And that might impress some people, but most Americans who pay their income taxes year after year probably see Trump as a guy who beats the system every step of the way.

He complained about our nation’s infrastructure and said some of our major airports “are like from a third-world country.” That left his face wide open for another pie from Clinton: “If he's paid zero, that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health.”

Zero to fix the runways at LaGuardia.
Trump got in some jabs at Clinton, but certainly no major blow. Because he spent so much time on the defensive, and because his rhetorical style is more about breathlessly uttering nouns than completing full sentences, he was no match for his well-prepared and poised opponent.
Clinton only squandered one clear opportunity: She did not mention, as she had during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, how many Trump products are made overseas. The Republican candidate went early and hard on trade deficits, shouting that the North American Free Trade Agreement was “the worst trade deal” in history. He talked about the loss of American manufacturing jobs. It would have been a perfect time for Clinton to bring up his made-in-China neckties and made-in-Turkey furniture. But, with so much baggage in the Trump closet, she was bound to miss something.