Women, take heart. Even a misogynistic blowhard like Donald Trump can be cowed.
In Wednesday’s debate of Republican candidates, Carly Fiorina was asked to comment on Trump’s recent insult about her looks. She rose so far above him, he didn’t lay a glove on her all night.
“Women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said,” she replied, earning one of the biggest rounds of applause. Trump was in full retreat. “I think she has a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman,” he said sheepishly.
Fiorina was fearless. Women often don’t get to confront their tormentors directly, much less before 25 million television viewers. We’ve all known since grade school that it is bad form to criticize a person for their physical attributes, especially those they can do nothing about.
Trump recovered, though, recycling his original comment about Fiorina for an attack on Sen. Rand Paul, first saying that Paul was such a loser in the polls that he didn’t belong on the debate stage, then applauding himself for showing restraint toward such a loser. “I never attacked him or his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there,” Trump said.
Fiorina never took the ample Trump bait that was dangled before her. Instead, she exposed him. The debate covered foreign policy and he knew nothing. He was defensive, recalling a flubbed interview as unfair because the interviewer, Hugh Hewitt, peppered him with questions about “Arab name, Arab name, Arab name.”
His foreign policy apparently would consist of just talking to world leaders, all of whom would love him – including the Mexican president he accused of exporting his country’s rapists to the United States.
The real estate mogul speculated that even Vladimir Putin, Russia’s pugnacious president, could be won over. “I would talk to him, I would get along with Putin,” he said.
Fiorina said that “having met Vladimir Putin,” she “wouldn’t talk to him at all.” She then took Trump on a whirlwind tour around the world in 80 seconds, ticking off everything the next president should do from Syria to Poland to the Baltic Sea to rebuilding the Sixth Fleet.
This is not to say that Trump has been stopped. Predictions of his demise have been wrong for months, including my own. While Fiorina showed him up, neither she nor anyone else showed him the door. Still, this second debate was evidence that Fiorina’s rise is not a blip and that Trump is becoming the thing he hates, a politician able to trim his sails when he encounters an unexpected gust of wind. What will Trump have left if he trims the act that fills stadiums?
A month ago, he sought revenge against Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, suggesting that she picked on him in the first debate because she was under the influence of her menstrual cycle. This time, he backed off from a second male-on-female fight. A bully can be bullied.
Fiorina’s troubled tenure as chief executive of Hewlett Packard should have been easy game. Instead, she got in her defense, saying the economy was bad at the time and that her ouster came at the hands of a dysfunctional board. She got the best of Trump by hitting him for the bankruptcies of his casinos in Atlantic City.
She won the night with two emotional answers. On Planned Parenthood, she diverted the discussion away from the question of whether Republicans should shut down the government to block the group’s funding. Rather, she expressed her disgust with allowing “a fully formed fetus” to be kept alive so that its brain can be harvested – a reference to undercover recordings that purport to show atrocities being committed at Planned Parenthood clinics. There’s a dispute over the validity of the tapes, but not about her giving the best answer to the question about what Republicans should do. “If we don’t force Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.”
On marijuana legalization, she advised caution, tugging at the heartstrings by revealing that she and her husband buried a child who died from drug addiction. She didn’t get maudlin. “We’re misleading young people to say that smoking today’s grass is like having a beer,” she said.
In a jab at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who only minutes earlier had admitted to smoking pot in his youth, she added, “The marijuana that kids are smoking today is not the same as the one that Jeb Bush smoked 40 years ago.”
But just because Fiorina benefited from Trump’s misogyny, she shouldn’t be mistaken for a feminist. She’s an opportunist. Although she’s now scooping up the benefits of being attacked by Trump, she began her campaign attacking the other woman running for president.
Like so many Republican women, she flicks away the suggestion that her gender has helped her, yet claims special standing as the only woman on stage.
Nonetheless, her performance was laudable, if only because she has shown everyone else how to show up Trump for the empty suit that he is.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.