This is the fight Hillary Clinton wants to have with Donald Trump. But it’s also the one he wants to have with her.
For Clinton, aides say her non-stop attacks on Trump’s commander-in-chief credentials are a model of how her campaign would wage a general election against Trump: hit him on substance and deflect the personal attacks, with an eye to widening the “stature gap” between the former secretary of state and former reality TV star. In the meantime, the foreign policy hits have the knock-on benefit of shunting Bernie Sanders to the side.
Meanwhile, Trump knows fear is good for his brand. He saw his polling numbers shoot up after the Paris terror attacks, and despite his inconsistencies on foreign policy, even his critics and Clinton’s allies worry about the appeal of his bluster, and promises of easy solutions to a frightened public.
Even before Tuesday’s attack in Brussels, Clinton used a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Monday to trample on Trump and moved to his right on Israel. She kept it up that night in a CNN forum, during which she condemned his “bigotry and bluster and bullying.”
The next day, as televisions broadcast images from Brussels, Clinton initially declined interview requests – until she saw that Trump was calling in to morning news shows. She responded in kind. In back-to-back interviews, Clinton went out of her way to criticize unnamed presidential candidates who question US involvement in NATO (as Trump did the day before) or who called for closing borders (as Trump has) or who believe torture should be used on terror suspects (as Trump does).
By lunchtime, she was appearing live on MSNBC and CNN to quip, “If we were to build a tall wall around the entire continental United States, the internet would still get over it.” In the afternoon, Clinton addressed a crowd in Washington state to say, “This morning is a reminder that we need a steady, smart, strong approach toward keeping us safe.”
Later, Clinton’s campaign announced she will give a speech focused entirely on counter-terrorism at Stanford University Wednesday.
After the Paris attacks, Americans said they trusted Clinton to handle terrorism over Trump by 50-to-42 percent margin, according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll from October found voters were far more likely to say Clinton has the experience, temperament and skills to be president over Trump.
Clinton is counting on the general election audience, which looks very different from a GOP primary audience, to come to their senses and realize Trump has no business being commander in chief.
But Trump is showing no signs that he sees foreign policy as a weakness.
“This is a subject that is very near and dear to my heart, because I’ve been talking about it, certainly much more than anybody else, and it’s why I’m probably No. 1 in the polls, because of the fact that I say we have to have strong borders,” he said on NBC’s “Today.”
Trump, to type, is taking on an entrenched foreign policy establishment.
For instance, he was scoffed at for telling the Washington Post editorial board that the US needs to scale back its commitment to NATO. But while support for NATO is seen as sacrosanct among elites, the public is actually divided.According to Pew, just 49 percent of Americans have favorable opinion of NATO, including just four-in-ten Republicans. And unfavorable views on the organization ticked up 10 percentage points between 2010 and 2015, from 21 percent to 31 percent.
Meanwhile, American citizens’ confidence in the US government’s ability to handle terrorism has plummeted to the lowest levels since the September 11 terror attacks, according to a 2015 Pew survey. And Americans narrowly oppose the US taking “the leading role” in trying to solve international problems, according to a December CNN poll.
That leaves Clinton, who for four years was literally the top of the top of the foreign policy establishment, defending what’s left of fragile post-war liberal internationalist consensus.
“Donald Trump undoubtedly sees this terrible event as a boost to his campaign and unfortunately he’s probably right,” said Joe Cirincione, the President of the Ploughshares Fund, which works to stem nuclear proliferation. “It would exaggerate Americans’ sense of fear, and whenever that happens, it drives people to the right… to the simple pretend solutions.”
There are no quick solution to international terrorism and there will be more attacks, Cirincione said, “But there isn’t a politician in America that’s going to say that.”
Never in recent years have foreign policy distinctions been as stark between major party nominees as they would be between Trump and Clinton.
Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and John McCain all played up their disagreements, but fundamentally agreed that the US needed to play a leading role in the world. So did John Kerry and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush.
Even Sanders, who is skeptical of trade agreements and has strongly criticized Clinton’s hawkish streak, seems to accept the basic tenants of internationalism. That puts him in the awkward position of being somewhere between Trump and Clinton, and mostly left out of the conversation.
Trump questions the basic tenets of recent American foreign policy, making it hard to know how the American public will respond.
Heather Hulbert, a former Clinton White House aide now at the New America Foundation, said Trump may have already gained as many votes as he’s going to lose from this, since his appeal has been limited to only a plurality of GOP primary voters.
But the tendency for people to rally around authority when they’re scared could actually work in Clinton’s advantage, Hulbert noted, since there’s some evidence to suggest American support for whichever party is already in power. “We turn to the authority figures that are keeping us safe now,” she said.So too could Clinton’s “off the charts public opinion ratings” on national security and terrorism, Hulbert said, though she was concerned by other research showing the public questions a woman’s ability be to be commander in chief.
But as President Barack Obama, who has often been criticized for serving up cool logic when the public wants passion, could tell Clinton, it might be a tough sell in the wake of a major tragedy that spikes fear.
Her campaign is a gamble that America will come to their senses by November.
“Yes, there are people who are understandably worried and scared. Absolutely,” Clinton told Savannah Guthrie on MSNBC Tuesday. ”And is it the responsibility of leaders to help people understand what can be done to allay their fears? Yes. I don’t think we want to be inciting more fears.
“I think we have to have a slow, steady, smart, strong response and we don’t need to be panicking… That’s what I’ve been advocating. That’s what I believe I am best equipped to do and that’s what I think will make us safer and stronger in the future.”