How important is presidential 'temperament'?

clinton trump debate hofstra temperament bts_00004205
clinton trump debate hofstra temperament bts_00004205

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    Trump and Clinton battle over presidential temperament

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Trump and Clinton battle over presidential temperament 01:15

Story highlights

  • Question of "presidential temperament" came up at the debate. There's a general consensus of what that entails, says Peggy Drexler
  • It's confidence, optimism, strong character, willingness to ignore one's emotions under pressure.
  • Drexler: Clinton kept composure in face of incessant goading, debating bluster with facts. Trump's unpredictability hardly presidential

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Among the highlights of Monday night's presidential debate was Republican nominee Donald Trump's assertion that not only does he have "much better judgment" than his opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but that he also has "a much better temperament ... I think my strongest asset, maybe by far," he said, "is my temperament. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win."

It's unclear what exactly a "winning temperament" is, and whether it has anything to do with actual winning, though it's true that the idea of "presidential temperament" has long been a critical factor when electing a leader. But even this is a very hard thing to gauge, and often a matter of personal opinion.
The general consensus, though, is that a president must appear confident and optimistic, with a strength of character that allows one to retain great secrets, and to withstand the pressure of having those secrets. As John Dickerson argued in Slate, someone with a presidential temperament has a reliable sense of self, strong values, a willingness to ignore one's emotions, and certain emotional maturity; plausibility as commander in chief.
    Of course, throughout the race, Trump has generated headlines by being quite the opposite in nearly all regards, throwing out -- apparently on impulse -- crazy conspiracy theories, xenophobic sentiment and anti-women rhetoric, all in the name of "speaking his mind."
    He is a big believer in name-calling, and few are spared. (See The New York Times's "The 258 People, Places, and Things Donald Trump has Insulted on Twitter: A complete list.") In July, he compared then-candidate Ben Carson to a "child molester" and called the people of Iowa "stupid" for believing Carson's claim that, as a teen, he'd nearly stabbed another boy. In August, he invited the Russians to hack Clinton's emails. Back in January, he even lashed out at his "stupid microphone."
    Presidential moments for Trump have, in turn, been few. In January, he reacted to then-GOP contender Ted Cruz's attack on "New York values" with a moderately heartfelt and articulate description of "New York resilience" as seen after 9/11. But for the most part, his campaign has been littered with outbursts, overreactions, insults and provocations.
    In the past, he's called women "pigs, slobs, dogs," and has continued in this vein during his presidential run, scattering sexist tweets and asides across his campaign rhetoric (Fox host Megyn Kelly is a "bimbo"; Carly Fiorina? "Look at that face. Would anyone vote for that?").
    His repeated criticism of a judge with Mexican heritage is just one example of the numerous times his views have been called racist. He also likes to dabble in half facts at best, as Clinton pointed out last night when she invited the audience to visit her website for the "real time fact-checking" on Trump claims.
    Presidential temperament? Monday's debate had been billed as an important opportunity for Trump to counter some of these outbursts, and to show evidence that he had that key quality. In the hours before, the media reported that "Donald Trump cannot afford a fumble tonight," and that the candidate had spent the day "relaxing, focusing, going over his vision."
    Did he succeed? Let's review: There was the time, early in the debate, where he hijacked a discussion about Clinton's earlier support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership by demanding over and over -- taunting, really -- without actually allowing her the chance to respond, "Is it President Obama's fault? Is it President Obama's fault?"
    He quickly grew agitated, and repeatedly relied on interrupting and raising his voice to drown her out. He launched into frequent tirades that had little or nothing to do with the question asked. When asked about cybersecurity weaknesses, he replied, "I have a son who's 10, he's so good with computers." And when he appeared at a loss for words, he countered that Clinton was "a typical politician: all talk, no action" -- an apparent dig at Clinton for daring to prepare for the debate.
    Meanwhile, Clinton remained composed throughout and took various opportunities to counter Trump's claims -- in particular, toward the end of the debate, that she lacked the "presidential look" and "stamina." She did not get through the debate unmoved -- she is human, after all, and humanity is important to show -- but she displayed an ability to remain unbothered, debating bluster with facts and remaining calm in the face of incessant goading. ("Secretary Clinton: is that OK?" Trump chided at one point, after having repeatedly called her by her first name. "Good. I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me.")
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    The least worrisome criticisms of Trump's personality -- that he's unpredictable and unfiltered -- describe qualities that might make for an OK businessman, if not best friend.
    But they're hardly the sorts of qualities Americans should look for in a world leader, someone entrusted with ensuring our safety in a world whose balance is ever more precarious. (And it should be noted, his talents as a businessman are still up for debate.)
    As for Clinton, she faces the immutable challenge of being a woman, in a culture where women are always viewed as more emotional, more reactive -- unless they aren't, at which point they're criticized for that, too. It's hard to imagine not letting an opponent like Trump get under your skin, but it's an easy argument to support that Clinton kept it together in a very presidential way.