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Against Trump, Hillary Clinton did what his GOP rivals could not

During the primaries, Hillary Clinton was restrained. Against Donald Trump, as we saw in vivid detail yesterday, Clinton no longer feels the need to hold back.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers a speech on national security in San Diego, Calif., June 2, 2016. (Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivers a speech on national security in San Diego, Calif., June 2, 2016.
It's easy to forget, but when it comes to campaigns for national office, we've really only seen one side of Hillary Clinton: the primary version. In 2007 and 2008, Clinton was a high-profile presidential candidate, but she was running against Barack Obama. In 2015 and 2016, she's been very active on the trail, but her rival thus far has been Bernie Sanders.
In her excellent new piece, New York's Rebecca Traister noted last week, "We have not yet experienced Hillary Clinton as a general-election candidate, permitted to fight without one hand tied behind her back. We've only seen her in tough primaries, her natural base of support divided in its loyalties, pitted against beloved men with good politics -- men she could not hit too hard, lest her negative words ever be used against them and their losses laid at her feet."

Hillary Clinton may have cracked the code on how to land a real blow to Donald Trump. He has proven a maddeningly elusive target for Republicans and Democrats alike. But on Thursday in San Diego, Clinton delivered what was easily her toughest speech yet on the presumptive Republican nominee, deploying a potent combination of her well-known policy wonkishness with a surprising dose of ridicule. "It's clear he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about," she urged, and added, "If Donald gets his way, they'll be celebrating in the Kremlin."

As MSNBC's Alex Seitz-Wald's report makes clear, we don't yet know the effects of Clinton's, shall we say, vigorous indictment of Trump's qualifications and preparedness, and it's too soon to say how the presumptive Republican nominee will respond.
But my oh my was yesterday's speech an example of Clinton at her very best. NBC News' Kasie Hunt added via Twitter, "Clinton pulling off what no GOP Trump challenger could: Taking him on in a way that makes her seem bigger, not smaller, than he."
From the speech:

"Donald Trump's ideas aren't just different -- they are dangerously incoherent. They're not even really ideas -- just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies. "He is not just unprepared -- he is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility. This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes -- because it's not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin. [...] "He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends -- including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope. He says he has foreign policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia. "And to top it off, he believes America is 'weak.' An 'embarrassment.' He called our military a 'disaster.' He said we are -- and I quote -- a 'third-world country.' And he's been saying things like that for decades. Those are the words my friends of someone who doesn't understand America or the world."

And really, this was just the start. Perhaps the most memorable portion of the remarks was Clinton reflecting on Trump's praise of foreign autocrats.

"I have to say, I don't understand Donald's bizarre fascination with dictators and strongmen who have no love for America. He praised China for the Tiananmen Square massacre; he said it showed strength. He said, 'You've got to give Kim Jong Un credit' for taking over North Korea – something he did by murdering everyone he saw as a threat, including his own uncle, which Donald described gleefully, like he was recapping an action movie. And he said if he were grading Vladimir Putin as a leader, he'd give him an A. "Now, I'll leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants."

Slate's Fred Kaplan added, "On each point, she contrasted his flimsy prejudices not only with her own experience and thought-out views but also with the long-standing, bipartisan traditions of American diplomacy. Then she kicked Trump in the shins."
This was not, however, just a kitchen-sink strategy. The point was to underscore a specific kind of argument: Clinton realizes there may be some Americans who believe we can take a chance with a demagogic reality-show personality making life-and-death decisions in the White House, and yesterday was about making the case that the gamble is simply too great.
It's why Clinton made multiple references to words like "dangerous" ("Trump's ideas aren't just different -- they are dangerously incoherent"),"risk" ("A Trump Presidency would embolden ISIS; we cannot take that risk"), and "stakes" ("The stakes in global statecraft are infinitely higher and more complex than in the world of luxury hotels").
Clinton made Trump look like a bad joke yesterday, but just as important is the effort to plant seeds of doubt in voters' minds about the Republican candidate representing a genuine hazard to the nation's future.
For his part, the presumptive GOP nominee struggled to respond because, frankly, no response would do -- everything Clinton said had the benefit of being true.