Prior to last night’s presidential debate, Donald Trump set a dark tone for the evening by appearing in front of reporters with three women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual impropriety, and another woman who was the plaintiff in a rape case in which Hillary Clinton represented the defendant. This move was clearly intended to get under the skin of Clinton and deflect some of the media conversation away from the Trump video leak that dominated the weekend news and set his campaign into crisis mode.
At the first debate, Trump made a thinly veiled threat suggesting he might bring the Bill Clinton accusers into the campaign narrative, so the Clinton camp knew to prepare a response to these charges. Once they got word of his pre-debate event and that he invited these women to attend the debate, it removed any doubt that Trump planned to viciously go after this issue.
I watched the shows leading up to the debates, and the pundits suggested she had two options: 1) defend herself and attack her opponent on his own checkered history with women, or 2) dismiss the charges and allow the debate to progress into policy issues. The problem with the first approach is it would put her on defense and allow her opponent to take early control of the debate. The second option would be a safe way to handle the situation, but it would fail to draw sympathy or highlight her opponent’s hypocrisy, thus failing to score any points with voters. She chose the latter approach.
What I would have strongly recommended if I were in her debate prep is a third approach – one inspired by the 2002 film 8 Mile. At the end of the movie, B-Rabbit (played by Eminem) goes first in a freestyle rap competition, and instead of solely focusing on his opponent, he rhymes about all the obvious insults his opponent had planned to say about him. Right before he ends and tosses the mic to the other guy, he says, “Here, tell these people something they don’t know about me.” His opponent is stunned and loses the battle because he has nothing left to say.
Rather than wait for Trump to reference those women, Clinton should have immediately acknowledged their presence and flashed emotion as she discussed that painful period in her life – perhaps even showing compassion for the accusers. This move would have allowed her to frame the issue in a way likely to draw sympathy while knocking Trump off his game plan. Once she had the crowd’s sympathy, she would have been strongly positioned to take jabs at her opponent’s own infidelities and aggression towards women – now putting him on the defensive side of the issue.
Instead, Trump was allowed to freely deliver his rehearsed attack, and it went nearly unchallenged by Clinton. The lesson here is that if you have a glaring weakness your competition wants to expose, sometimes the best course of action is to take control of the issue by beating them to the punch.