CINCINNATI — Democrat Hillary Clinton scoffed at the capabilities and worldview of Republican opponent Donald Trump on Wednesday, including his hasty trip to Mexico, as she courted support from veterans and conservatives concerned about national security.
"You deserve a leader who honors your service not just with words, but with deeds," Clinton told an audience of several thousand veterans at the American Legion annual conference.
Trump, she said, understands little about how American alliances operate or the principles of U.S. engagement abroad. She appealed to the patriotism and military experience of a conservative-leaning audience, many of whom she jokingly observed, had probably never voted for a Democrat.
"My opponent is wrong when he says that America is no longer great," she said. "Make no mistake, I do believe we have better days ahead. But things could also get worse," she said, if a variety of scenarios raised by Trump's campaign statements came true.
"If more countries get nuclear weapons, if we abandon our allies, if our commander in chief orders our military to ignore laws," against torture or assassination, Clinton said.
Her latest effort to paint Trump as too dangerous and ill-informed to command American diplomacy or its armed forces came as Trump made a brief trip to Mexico, the border ally he has accused of exporting criminals and rapists to the United States. He was meeting President Enrique Peña Nieto at the Mexican leader's invitation.
Clinton received a similar invitation but has not accepted.
"Getting countries working together was my job every day as your secretary of state," Clinton said. "It's more than a photo op. It takes consistency and reliability," she said. "And it certainly takes more than trying to make up for a year of insults and insinuations by dropping in on our neighbors for a few hours and then flying home again. That is not how it works."
Much of the speech focused on the idea of “American exceptionalism,” which broadly refers to the view that the United States was created differently than other nations and bears singular global responsibilities. It is a decades-old notion often more popular on the political right than the left. Although not an inherently partisan idea, it was associated with so-called neoconservative thinkers who backed the Iraq War and other U.S. interventions taken in the name of democratic nation-building.
Clinton is embracing it before a generally conservative audience as a means of highlighting what she calls Trump’s dangerous turn away from traditional alliances and his divergence from Republican national security orthodoxy.
"Part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensible nation," Clinton said. "In fact, we are the indispensible nation. People all over the world look to us, and follow our lead," Clinton said.
The crowd of mostly elderly men gave Clinton a polite if somewhat tepid reception, and there were numerous empty seats. She drew applause when she said that if elected president she would never insult the families of war dead or prisoners of war, a reference to Trump's remarks about the family of Humayun Khan and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)
Clinton pledged more job help and other services for veterans and pledged to try to do away with the arbitrary military cuts mandated by congressional budget action.
"This election should not be about ideology." she said. "It's not just about differences over policy - it's truly about who has the experience and the temperament to serve," as commander in chief.
The speech, while repeating Clinton’s frequent criticisms that Trump’s populist foreign policy ideas are dangerous and unworkable, went further in establishing her own position as an internationalist who is to his political right on the issue of overseas engagement.
Clinton sought to play down her reputation as a hawk during the Democratic primary, when rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) scored points by reminding liberal voters that he had opposed the Iraq intervention while Clinton supported it as senator. She later reversed herself and said she regretted her 2002 vote in favor of the war.
The former secretary of state’s foreign policy experience and support for traditional national security tenets are now seen as a general election asset she is using to reassure moderate voters and attract Republican support.
Ahead of her speech, Clinton’s campaign announced the endorsement of James C. Clad, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia under Republican President George W. Bush. He joins a growing group of Republicans publicly backing her on national security grounds and a far longer list of Republicans who have pledged not to vote for Trump because of his national security views but who have not said they will vote for Clinton.
Trump, who will address the American Legion annual conference on Thursday, has expressed some admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and skepticism about the value of traditional alliances and obligations, such as nuclear defense of Japan and South Korea. His view that NATO allies should pay more is widely shared by voters and politicians of both parties, but Clinton focused on his statements that suggest the United States could pull back from its commitments.
Clad, now senior adviser for Asia at the Center For Naval Analyses, released a statement through the Clinton campaign on Wednesday morning praising Clinton for “helping other Asian countries counter Chinese bullying in the western Pacific.”
As secretary of state Clinton advocated a firm show of U.S. support for smaller nations alarmed by Chinese military expansion. That expansion includes the building of bases and other infrastructure that could be used against near neighbors, and China’s claims of territorial sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. She also advocated the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal she has since disavowed as a means to reinforcing U.S. support among Asian nations that felt squeezed by Chinese trade demands.
“For Republicans and Democrats alike, everything in national security requires clarity and steadiness,” Clad said.
“Our adversaries must never hear flippancy or ignorance in America’s voice. They should never take satisfaction from an incompetent president. Giving an incoherent amateur the keys to the White House this November will doom us to second or third class status.”
The speech is Clinton’s only public campaign appearance in a week largely devoted to raising campaign cash. Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) have been on a fundraising blitz in the last two weeks aimed at out-raising Trump in August.
Clinton leads Trump in national polls as well as several recent surveys in battleground states. At the same time, favorable views of her are at a record low, the worst measured during Clinton's quarter-century in national public life.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows 41 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Clinton, while 56 percent have an unfavorable one.