As Spoiler Alerts noted Friday, Hillary Clinton gave a pretty effective speech eviscerating Donald Trump’s foreign policy musings. What has been fascinating, however, has been the aftereffects of that speech. To sum up the reactions that I have seen:
DEMOCRATS: Wow, that was a great speech!
FOREIGN POLICY WONKS: Finally, someone took on Trump’s national security idiocies!
CONSERVATIVES: Clinton’s foreign policy record might be awful, but she’s not wrong about Trump.
It’s these last two points that matter a fair amount. As Jonathan Martin, Maggie Haberman and Amy Chozick noted in the New York Times at the start of the weekend, the Trump campaign had no coordinated response:
There was no broader counterattack from his campaign or his allies, a remarkable silence after Mrs. Clinton’s harshest critique yet.
“He needs to get the Republican chorus singing for him, and making sure he’s got a lot of voices out there,” said Terry Nelson, a longtime Republican strategist. “He’s got to make sure he is reaching out to the party and letting them know what the message is, what to say and how to say it.”
There is little evidence of any such coordination. His campaign sent out no response to the Clinton speech. The Republican National Committee, on which Mr. Trump’s team has been leaning heavily, issued just one pre-emptive critique of Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy before her remarks.
Or, as Jim Antle III noted in the Washington Examiner, “The silence was deafening.”
While Corker said he believes in Trump’s ability to be a potential “disruptor” in Washington and has even seen in the candidate “a degree of maturity stepping in,” he appeared hard-pressed to name any specific foreign policy ideas that give him confidence in Trump’s commander-in-chief abilities.
So what’s the big deal? Trump has delighted in tweaking the foreign policy establishment — indeed, it’s been his best line during the campaign. Will the lack of defenders matter?
I’m beginning to wonder if it might. True, we live in a very polarized country. Ordinarily, if Clinton says the sky is blue, all you need is a prominent Republican to say the sky is actually red and you’ll get a “Country deeply divided about the sky color” headline. But for that to happen, prominent Republicans must be willing to say “Trump is not crazy on foreign policy.” And GOP talking heads either can’t (in the case of Corker) or won’t (in the case of everyone else) say that.
Presidential candidates have the capacity to make heterodox arguments about foreign policy, but they need to be intellectually equipped to handle criticism of those views. Trump clearly possesses the bravado to defend his positions, but lacks the requisite foreign affairs knowledge and supporting apparatus. Recall that when Trump finally introduced his foreign affairs team members, they seemed a far cry from his initial claim that he would assign the “finest team anyone has put together” to foreign policy. At the same time, foreign policy analysts spanning the ideological spectrum have panned his foreign policy speeches and statements.
It’s still only June. There’s plenty of time for Trump to woo respected Republican foreign policy officials (James Baker kinda sorta tries to say nice things about Trump in the Financial Times, but it’s weak tea). But it’s worth remembering that the one group of Republicans that Trump has not browbeatem into submission has been the foreign policy/national security crowd. If the Trump campaign has a few more news cycles like this one, we’ll see if it starts trying to change that.