During the first Democratic presidential primary debate and in both of two GOP forums, the women on stage managed to be declared the clear winners. Clinton and Republican Carly Fiorina turned in what most political observers described as indisputably solid performances. At the same time, both might have also gleaned a bit of benefit from the standard advice given to men preparing to engage in any kind of debate or formal public confrontation with a woman.
That advice usually boils down to this: Don't raise your voice. Don't point or use condescending language or speech patterns. Don't use wild hand gestures. Don't — as Rick Lazio (R) made the mistake of doing in a 2000 New York Senate debate with Clinton — ever physically approach a female candidate. All of the above might be perceived by viewers as menacing. And if a man is understood as a bully, he will lose.
Now, we know that someone will certainly suggest right about now that neither Clinton nor Fiorina are shrinking violets. For reasons ranging from their professional experiences to their undoubted preparation for the debates, there's no sense in interacting with either woman gently. But we are merely telling you that this is the advice given almost universally to male candidates facing off with female candidates. It just is.
And a certain something happened Thursday during Clinton's marathon testimony that just about proves it.
Most, but of course not all, of the most detailed, pointed and confrontational moments between Clinton and members of the committee came from the two Republican women on the panel. Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said at the start of the hearing that he did not intend to interrupt Clinton while she was speaking or cut her off mid-answer. Both tasks, turns out, fell to two GOP women on the panel: Reps. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) and Martha Roby (R-Ala.).
Now, of course, we can't say at this moment that this was actually planned in advance. But that's what happened.
Perhaps the most illustrative confrontation came when Brooks stacked 795 e-mails on the dais in front of her seat. Here's the start of the exchange that followed:
BROOKS: Good morning, Secretary Clinton.CLINTON: Good morning.BROOKS: Thank you for being here today. In drawing on what you just said, that very few . . . requests for Benghazi came to your attention, I'd like to show you something. This pile represents the e-mails that you sent or received about Libya in 2011, from February through December of 2011.This pile represents the e-mails you sent or received from early 2012 until the day of the attack. There are 795 e-mails in this pile. We've counted them.There's 67 e-mails in this pile in 2012. And I'm troubled by what I see here. And so, my questions relate to these piles. In this pile in 2011, I see daily updates, sometimes hourly updates from your staff about Benghazi and Chris Stevens.When I look at this pile in 2012, I only see a handful of e-mails to you from your senior staff about Benghazi. . . . And I can only conclude by your own records that there was a lack of interest in Libya in 2012.
There were questions about the movements and moving plans of American diplomats, various State Department divisions and security arrangements. Brooks even interrupted Clinton at one point — though she did apologize.
For all the visual drama created by that stack of e-mails, whatever point that Brooks was trying to make didn't really land with full force. It wasn't exactly a victory for those interested in proving that the administration or Clinton failed in carrying out their duties. And it didn't exactly make Brooks look like a shrewd interrogator of the slippery witness that Republicans clearly think Clinton represents.
In fairness — and setting gender norms aside — Brooks was put in a tough position. The same goes for Roby. Just search the hearing transcript for their names. In it, you will also see the exchange in which Roby confronts Clinton with a series of e-mails that lead Roby to conclude that Clinton did not even know that there were American diplomats or, possibly, any kind of station in Benghazi.
That was, of course, a claim Clinton quickly refuted in no uncertain terms.
"Of course I knew we had a presence in Benghazi," Clinton said. "I knew that we were evaluating what that presence should be, how long it should continue. And I knew exactly what we were doing in Libya."
During another pitched battle with Clinton, Roby repeatedly urged her to look at an e-mail in her briefing book, which Clinton declined to do. She accused Clinton of brushing off her questions. Later, she fought back on Clinton's assertion that what went wrong on that fateful night might not have been avoidable.
Through it all, though, Clinton avoided serious pitfalls.
But what were Brooks and Roby to do? The men on the committee have clearly been advised to be careful, lest they hand Clinton one of those unforgettable Fiorina vs. Trump moments in which Fiorina reminded Trump that America heard what he said about her face too.
Even The Donald was temporarily silenced.