Ms. Haley seemed to know she’d gain more by shutting down a male jerk with humor than by letting the moment go. A bit later, too, when Mr. Ramaswamy brought up Ms. Haley’s daughter’s use of TikTok, an unusually personal attack on a family member, Ms. Haley spoke for many when she said, “You’re just scum.”
Now imagine Ms. Haley on the debate stage with Mr. Trump. Maybe Mr. Trump has imagined it. Maybe that’s why he’s afraid to debate her.
Whether you love or hate these playground-style duels, these moments can be more consequential than many of us assume. Most Americans are not reading deeply into the platforms of each candidate; they get glimpses of them in public performances like this and often form opinions around them. So when a moment like this goes viral, often it matters even more. “People get to see whether you could stand your ground or hold your own,” said Tristan Bridges, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies gender politics. “And they’re just intensely gendered, every time, no matter who’s running.”
Masculinity contests have long been a part of politics; for years, war heroes and combat veterans won office or their party’s presidential nominations, as other men sought to project traditionally masculine characteristics like toughness, resolve, seriousness, strength. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton ran for president staking out some hawkish positions on Iraq and foreign policy; her image of toughness helped her at first, given the ongoing threats from the war on terror. But she became caught up in questions about her likability, with none other than Barack Obama delivering if not a Ramaswamy comment, then still a pretty gendered one in a hushed aside at a critical debate: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
No woman runs for office these days without having some way of responding to such digs, and Ms. Haley has practiced. As far back as 2012, she’s been recycling a version of her heels-as-ammunition line. As governor of South Carolina: “I’ve got a completely male Senate. Do I want to use these for kicking? Sometimes, I do.” During an address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: “If I see something wrong, we’re going to kick them every single time.” In her official campaign announcement: “You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”