Hillary Clinton knows what happened in Paris is a potential political problem for her. But she appears to have found at least one effective strategy to shield herself from some Republican attacks — and even score some political points against her opponents.
Republicans accuse Clinton and her former boss, President Obama, of letting the Islamic State thrive under their watch. What's more, the same day Obama said the group is "contained," three groups with ties to the Islamic State killed at least 129 people in Paris. In Saturday's second Democratic debate, Clinton was forced to run away in no uncertain terms from Obama's "contained" comment.
Sensing her weakness, Republicans spent the weekend trying to engage in a war of words with Clinton. They're re-upping in increasingly fiery rhetoric the conservative argument that because she won't use the term "radical Islam" to describe those who make up the Islamic State, she's incapable of understanding how to defeat them. (It's an argument long used against Obama, who also eschews the phrase.)
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Sunday broke out the trusty Nazi analogy to make such a point. Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Rubio said Clinton's refusal to call the Islamic State "radical Islam" is "like saying we weren’t at war with Nazis, because we were afraid to offend some Germans who may have been members of the Nazi Party but weren’t violent themselves."
It was a particularly brutal line, not only for its memorability, but because Rubio also insinuated that Clinton is too blinded by political correctness to accurately assess threats abroad.
But Clinton, unlike Obama, has found an effective way to push right back: pointing out that none other than President George W. Bush kind of agrees with her. And already, her strategy tripped up the person who arguably has the most to gain from a recasting of who's to blame for Middle East violence — President Bush's brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Clinton made clear at Democrats' second debate Saturday that yes, she does think folding Islam into the discussion of fighting terrorism abroad is counterproductive. At a time when Western and Muslim powers need to cooperate more than ever, the United States can't afford to sow doubt among Muslims about whose side its on, she argued.
She pointed out that's essentially what President Bush said in the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Islam is peace," Bush said, adding that America is not at war with Muslims.
"That was one of the real contributions, despite all the other problems, that George W. Bush made after 9/11," Clinton said Saturday, "when he basically said after going to a mosque in Washington, we are not at war with Islam or Muslims.
On Sunday morning, CNN's Jake Tapper asked the younger Bush to square what today's Republican presidential hopefuls are saying about the Islamic State and what his brother called them.
"[President Bush] said Islam is peace," Tapper said. "It's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton saying Islam is peace and not being attacked by Republicans."
Bush didn't really have an answer to that. "Look, all I know is that [Hillary Clinton] does not believe that this is our fight," he said.
Bush then appeared to undermine his own argument by indicating that perhaps rhetoric isn't the only way to assess one's toughness against an enemy.
"I don't think anybody would question that my brother was in that fight, that he viewed it as a national security fight, and he led," Bush said.
But rhetoric is exactly what 2016 GOP hopefuls appear to be spending most of their time on in the days after the Paris attacks.
That's because Republicans see a clear political benefit in engaging in a war of words with Clinton about what to call the Islamic State. It drives home the narrative that she and an inexperienced Obama have been unable to accurately diagnose today's greatest terrorist threat, let alone find a way to defeat it. It's a narrative perhaps made all the more plausible to voters after attackers with alleged ties to the Islamic State shocked the world with their terror and cruelty.
But Republicans might want to navigate this particular battle carefully. With her back against the wall, Clinton appears to have found a smart way to turn their finger-pointing on this issue right back around. Just ask Jeb Bush.