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.”