Hillary Clinton should not be penalized for preparing extensively to run for president. At the first general-election debate on Monday, the Democratic nominee demonstrated a more nuanced understanding of complex problems facing the country than Donald Trump did. That’s not entirely surprising given that she reportedly devoted more time to “homework, research, and rehearsals” than her Republican rival had. Yet while voters should expect presidential candidates to prepare for the challenges of campaigning and the presidency, it didn’t take long for Clinton’s effort to become a focus of post-debate criticism.
“She obviously was overprepared, and she wanted to make sure we heard every single scripted moment, including the snarky ones, that she had prepared to say,” Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN Tuesday morning. It’s not just partisans who have been critical of the way Clinton’s preparation played out on the debate stage. “Hillary Clinton was at times, even, you could argue, overprepared,” Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, commented in his analysis of the debate, concluding that “her opening statement must have had 15 policy proposals within that two minutes.”
Valuing preparation in a presidential candidate is not a partisan position and should not be controversial. It’s even possible to criticize what Clinton said on stage while acknowledging that preparation reflects well on her as a candidate. So why have critics been so quick to find fault? The idea that Clinton was overprepared feeds into negative perceptions of her as inauthentic. That’s clearly the narrative the Trump campaign wants to promote. It’s also not hard to see sexism at work in subtle ways when Clinton is effectively being criticized for her ambition.
There are, of course, more gracious interpretations of the post-debate commentary: that “overprepared” is merely a shorthand for Clinton’s wonky style of political communication, and not a criticism of the effort she took to prepare. But regardless of intent, claims that Clinton was overly prepared risk leaving the impression that the best politicians are ones who are born with the skill it takes to win elected office—or those the public perceives as effortlessly talented—and not the ones who have to work hard to win.
Clinton readily admits that campaigning doesn’t come easily for her. “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” she said at a Democratic primary debate in March. At the debate on Monday, she framed the effort she has undertaken to run for president in a positive light. “I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate, and yes, I did,” Clinton said, after Trump commented that he had “been all over the place” while she had “decided to stay home.” Clinton added: “You know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”
It’s remarkable and more than a little depressing that the Democratic nominee has to explain that advanced preparation is an asset for such a high-stakes event. The reason she has to explain that, though, is that Clinton is acutely aware that critics dislike what her preparation signals: a relentless determination to win.
Determination is not the same as preparation. Trump could be extremely determined to become president, but unwilling to do anything to prepare. Yet the two qualities seem to be conflated in the minds of some voters. And when assigned to Clinton, voters sometimes describe both qualities as negative.
At a focus group of undecided voters moderated by Republican strategist Frank Luntz earlier this month, a number of participants described Clinton as determined to do whatever it takes to win, and judged her for it. “You don’t ever select the person who wants the position for that position, and I think that’s the case with Hillary Clinton,” one woman said, adding: “She wants it so much she’ll say anything, she’ll do anything.” Clinton’s ambition was framed as evidence of entitlement and selfishness. “All she knows is she wants to be president, she deserves to be president,” another woman said. One man added: “This is all she knows, this is her entire life, this is not something she’s doing for the country.”
For voters who see the political system as thoroughly broken, Clinton’s political experience does not qualify her to become president so much as it disqualifies her. Trump’s lack of experience, by comparison, makes him more suited to the presidency in the eyes of his supporters. There is an irony to all this: Running for office necessarily means a person aspires to be a professional politician, yet voters require prospective officeholders to denounce the political system at every turn. Doing so is held up as proof of authenticity and qualification for the job. That’s not to say that there aren’t candidates who want to run for office because they want to change the system. But it is disingenuous to pretend, as so many candidates do, that they are not themselves part of “the system” already. Clinton actually acknowledges that she is a politician and takes the job seriously. That acknowledgment in and of itself is authentic, though she is rarely, if ever, described as such.
It’s not inherently sexist to find fault with ambition. But it is likely that some of the criticism Clinton faces stems from her willingness to transgress expectations of women. In 2013, Stanford University sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in the Harvard Business Review that “high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success—and specifically the behaviors that created that success—violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are experienced to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively ... she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she ‘should’ behave.” This backlash is likely at play to some extent in negative assessments of Clinton. Preparation suggests determination, assertiveness, and a desire for power that does not mesh with old-school gender stereotypes.
It is impossible to separate criticism over Clinton’s ambition from the vast gender disparities that exist in politics. There is no feasible way that the first woman to win a major-party nomination could be a “natural” at trying to win an office that only men have won; there’s nothing effortless about trying to break a long-established mold in American politics. So it’s not hard to see why Clinton might feel pressure to demonstrate that she’s more prepared than her male counterpart—to prove that she’s ready for a position that American voters never before deemed a woman adequately qualified to hold. Whatever the outcome of the election, criticism on the campaign trail has consequences. In this case, the criticism that Clinton faces risks reinforcing a standard that’s impossible to live up to, and one that could discourage women and men alike from seeking elected office.