The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Clinton should hit Trump on foreign policy

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton has decided to deliver a “major” foreign policy address this Thursday, and even though she has given a couple of these already during the campaign, this one will focus “both on her ideas and leadership credentials and on what she will describe as the threat Trump poses to national security.”

If her previous comments are any indication, Clinton’s speech will likely be measured, cautious, and careful, trying to make strong points without looking too forceful. But perhaps the time for that has passed. Clinton might consider just coming out and saying what she surely thinks, and what many other people think as well: electing Donald Trump wouldn’t just be “risky,” it would be positively mad.

As Anne Gearan reports:

Clinton’s campaign hopes that there are many more national-­security-minded Republicans and independents who would vote for her, even grudgingly, rather than see Trump win the White House. Those voters are an important part of the audience for her case that she is fit to be commander in chief and that Trump is not.

One question is how many of those voters there actually are — thoughtful, serious national-security-minded conservatives whose feelings on that subject will overwhelm whatever they believe on other issues. But if there are a good number, Clinton is well-positioned to make a case to them, not only because of her experience as secretary of state, but because she’s long been among the more hawkish of Democrats. Even if she’d be more of a dove than your average Republican, her instincts lean much more to the use of military force to solve problems than those of Barack Obama. That means that Republicans for whom foreign policy is important could comfort themselves with the thought that they’ll agree with her decisions at least some of the time.

She’d still have lots of convincing to do, though. And the path from here to there might lie in acknowledging Republicans’ own ambivalence about Trump, letting them know she understands the struggle they’ve gone through.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

For a while, I’ve been arguing that as much of a repellent halfwit as Trump is, if you’re a conservative Republican it makes perfect sense to vote for him. Because he doesn’t care about policy, he’s likely to just outsource most substantive questions to the Republican Congress and to the people in his administration — who would be the same people who would fill those jobs in any administration. Yes, he’ll make a few crazy appointments, but it’s not like Trump knows or cares who the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Markets is. When the time comes he’ll say, “Get me somebody top-notch, really tremendous,” and a person who right now is working as a fellow at the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, and who held a similar post in the Bush administration, will get the job — just as she would have under Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or any other Republican.

But foreign policy is different. In foreign policy the president has far more latitude to make his own decisions without the involvement of Congress, which would make Trump even more dangerous. We’ve seen how impulsive he is and how he reacts to slights. What happens when Kim Jong Un calls him a capitalist running dog? Is Trump going to brush it off, or try to settle the score? The president has to know when to do one and when to do the other, particularly when it comes to delicate relations between countries. But let me offer you an excerpt from Trump’s book “Think Big and Kick Ass,” which came out in 2007:

When someone crosses you, my advice is “Get Even!” That is not typical advice, but it is real life advice. If you do not get even, you are just a schmuck! When people wrong you, go after those people because it is a good feeling and because other people will see you doing it. I love getting even. I get screwed all the time. I go after people, and you know what? People do not play around with me as much as they do with others. They know that if they do, they are in for a big fight. Always get even. Go after people that go after you. Don’t let people push you around. Always fight back and always get even. It’s a jungle out there, filled with bullies of all kinds who will try to push you around. If you’re afraid to fight back people will think of you as a loser, a “schmuck!” They will know they can get away with insulting you, disrespecting you, and taking advantage of you. Don’t let it happen! Always fight back and get even. People will respect you for it.

Now that sounds like a guy you’d trust to manage sensitive situations like our relationship with Pakistan or negotiations with Iran, right?

Clinton’s challenge is to communicate the urgency of the threat of a Trump presidency while still conveying her own seriousness. So what should she say? If I were her, it’d go something like this:

Now let me speak directly to my Republican friends who care about America’s place in the world. It’s no longer so important how your party arrived at this day. But it’s here. Donald Trump is your nominee. A man who wants to build walls around America like we’re East Berlin during the Cold War. A man who wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States, while we’re working so hard with our allies to convince the world’s Muslims to reject extremism. A man who wants to start a trade war with China. A man who thinks more countries ought to have nuclear weapons. A man so consumed by petty vindictiveness that he can’t keep himself from attacking your fellow Republicans over even the tiniest slight, real or perceived, no matter the political cost.
I know you love your country more than you love your party. This isn’t a matter of policy quibbles, or questions about the implications of one foreign policy doctrine or another. This is an emergency. In foreign policy, Donald Trump is nothing less than the most dangerous person either party has ever nominated for president. And I do mean ever. His combination of ignorance, impulsiveness, and insecurity make handing America’s foreign policy and national security a worse idea than letting your dog drive your car on the highway.
I can’t promise you that you’ll always agree with my decisions. And I’m sure that if I’m elected this year, in 2020 your party will nominate someone you’ll be proud to back in order to make me a one-term president. I look forward to that debate. But for now, I implore you: make a decision that you, and the country, can live with.

Would that be persuasive? I’m not sure. But it would acknowledge Republicans’ own mixed feelings about Trump, while making clear just how, shall we say, dramatic a Trump presidency could be in foreign affairs. And it would also tick Trump off to no end, which I’m sure Clinton wouldn’t mind, either.