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Hillary Clinton's Shimmy Said It All

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Julio Cortez/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Julio Cortez/AP)

In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign was defined by a teary-eyed moment in New Hampshire. This time around, it might be the shimmy.

When we look back on Monday night’s Trump-Clinton debate, that’s the image that’s going to stick: Clinton, having listened calmly to long and largely incoherent ramble from her opponent, finally got her turn to speak, and launched with a little involuntary “Whoo! OK!” and a shoulder shake.

Within nanoseconds, the video had been turned into countless GIFs. By morning, it was mocked on Breitbart, with the all-caps headline: “WATCH: HILLARY CLINTON SHIMMY AT PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE GOES ON A FEW SECONDS TOO LONG.”

Did it? Who cares? It was perhaps the first moment in the entire campaign when Clinton looked like she was actually enjoying herself. When she seemed to be thinking, “I’ve got this.”

It’s not surprising, based on the rules of every other debate that ever existed, that Clinton would do better in this kind of forum. She’s notorious for preparation; she’s steeped in policy; Trump is…not. Still, every Clinton supporter/Trump hater I know was panicking on Monday, understanding that Trump would be graded on a different curve: If he stood moderately still, spoke in complete sentences about policy, and didn’t insult large swaths of America, the punditry would deem him “presidential.”

That didn’t happen. Perhaps this was a function of what James Fallows of the Atlantic has noted: That two minutes — the amount of time moderator Lester Holt gave Trump to answer various policy questions — is a very long time to fill when you don’t have much to say. Trump rambled. He made self-defeating statements. (Accused of wishing for a collapse of the real estate market, he interjected: “That’s called business.”) He made bizarre declarations, like the fact that America’s airports “are like third-world countries.” (They might not be as glittering as Dubai International, but at this point, they’re glorified shopping malls.) He interrupted so much that it surely gave many women flashbacks to times they’ve been interrupted at meetings — or at the dining room table. He made overblown assertions, the juiciest one being that “I have a much better temperament than she does.”

This as he whined about Clinton’s negative ads — presumably, the ones pointing out that he mocked a reporter with disabilities — declaring they “weren’t nice.” He played the part he’s laid out for himself: the classic bully who can dish it out, but is incapable of taking it.

She has the chance, a very good one, to be the first woman president. That is worthy of a little personal dance of joy.

In other words, Clinton had it without having to do much heavy lifting. This poses a challenge for her, something to strive for in future debates. She wasn’t perfect, after all. She had a low-energy start. She devolved, too often, into Marco Rubio-style recitations of facts, as if she were a high school student desperate to let you know that she had crammed for an exam. She didn’t present a lot of memorable lines; “Trumped-up trickle-down economics,” or whatever she called it, is not going to sweep the nation.

And next time around, Trump might have a chance to talk more about immigration, to extemporize on his “they’re coming across the border to kill us” message that has been so useful for him, as fresh red meat. Fear-mongering is his sweet spot. She’ll need a good response.

But what Clinton should take out of the debate is the fact that she can do it: The shimmy, and the confidence it projects, should give her the freedom to go a little bolder next time. It was a meaningful physical gesture: Not a swagger — a projection of dominance — but an inward message to herself.

She has the chance, a very good one, to be the first woman president. That is worthy of a little personal dance of joy.

Related:

Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is a former reporter and columnist for the Boston Globe.

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