For years, Americans have viewed Democrats as more tolerant and concerned about the poor and lower middle class than their Republican rivals, but they gave the GOP a much stronger grade when it came to the stewardship of foreign policy and national defense.
A February 2015 national survey by the Pew Research Center found that by a 51 percent to 31 percent margin, Americans believed that Republicans would do a better job than Democrats in combatting terrorist threats at home. And when it came to dealing with defense and national security matters, the public 48 percent to 35 percent concluded that GOP leaders were more effective.
But that, of course, was before the rise of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and his outrageous, off-the-charts prescription for grappling with the problems of illegal immigration and the growing threat of ISIS both at home and abroad. Trump, who says that he chiefly confers with himself in formulating his foreign policy notions, has unquestionably energized his conservative base with his frequently rash pronouncements on how he would vanquish the enemy in short order.
But he has also scared or shaken up many more mainstream Republicans and Democrats by enunciating strategic and foreign policy ideas contrary to Republican foreign policies and ideals dating back many decades. If he prevails in securing the 2016 GOP presidential nomination this summer, as increasingly seems the case, then we may see an historic sea change in public sentiment on national security and terrorism – one that moves away from the GOP and towards former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Clinton’s ample foreign policy and government experience have given her an important leg-up in her primary battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, even as many liberal Democrats have questioned her honesty and integrity in light of her mishandling of top secret emails during her four years at the State Department and the millions of dollars that she and her husband accepted in speaking fees and contributions from Wall Street bankers. Polls have shown that Clinton is judged far superior to her rivals on governance and leadership, even while she suffers from high overall negative ratings.
But during a highly acclaimed foreign policy speech on Wednesday at Stanford University in California, Clinton’s gifts as a leader and public policy thinker were on full display – and in sharp contrast to Trump’s amateurish and potentially dangerous declarations.
“Politically speaking it’s very difficult in this very strange year to talk about impact, but I think people who are paying attention should have noticed that it took her just a few hours to respond to these very serious events in Europe not with extremist, off-the cuff remarks but an organized and well- crafted strategy that included both our allies and our own policies,” William Galston, a political and government expert with the Brookings Institution, said on Thursday.
“And I think the point that she is underscoring is that when it comes to foreign policy and national defense, the Oval Office is no place for on-the-job training,” he said. “Nor is it a place for people whose temperaments incline them to extreme positions or to shoot from the hip.”
Trump has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, arrest and deport more than 11 million illegal immigrants, prevent Muslims from entering the country until the U.S. has a better handle on domestic terrorist threats, and authorize the use of water boarding and even more draconian torture techniques to extract intelligence from enemy combatants. He has pressed the idea of cutting back on U.S. support of NATO in staring down Russia in the Ukraine and other strategic European regions.
Then, in the wake of Tuesday’s terrorist bombings in Brussels that killed at least 31 people and seriously wounded scores of others, Trump and his chief GOP rival, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, rushed to top one another with more extreme responses. Trump called for U.S. authorities to “close up our borders” to prevent the infiltration of terrorists, while Cruz proposed authorizing police surveillance of neighborhoods with large numbers of Muslim residents to try to foil conspiracies of future attacks.
Trump also renewed his call for the use of torture in dealing with terrorists, arguing that the mayhem in Brussels could have been prevented if French and Belgian officials had tortured Salah Abdeslam, the recently captured ringleader of the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, to extract intelligence. The real estate mogul and former reality TV personality embraced Cruz’s call for intense police surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods in this country, an idea roundly dismissed as wrongheaded and counterproductive by President Obama and New York Police Commissioner William Bratton.
When given the opportunity during a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters to disavow an earlier proposal to use low-yield nuclear weapons to wipe out ISIS forces on the battlefield, Trump simply changed the subject.
“What presidents say and how they say it matters,” added Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “Presidential remarks reverberate around the world instantaneously these days. And there is a right way and a wrong way to lead the world’s most powerful democracy. Clinton is trying to model the right way.”
During her hour-long speech in Palo Alto, Clinton derided Trump and Cruz for proposing “reckless actions” that would enrage Muslim citizens of this country, alienate important allies in the Middle East and elsewhere and provide comfort to Russian President Vladimir Putin by downgrading NATO forces in Europe, according to an account by The New York Times.
“If Mr. Trump gets his way, it will be like Christmas in the Kremlin,” she told a large gathering. “It will make America less safe and the world more dangerous.”
“NATO in particular is one of the best investments the United States has ever made," she added.
"America is a great nation and this is a time for American leadership: smart, strong, steady leadership," she added. "No other country can rally allies and partners to defeat ISIS. Only the United States can mobilize common action on a global scale."
Clinton’s speech suggests that -- even more than before -- she is beginning to pivot from her hard fought Democratic primary campaign with Sanders to what by all estimates will be a bruising, dirty campaign against Trump this fall. While no one seriously questions her credentials as a foreign policy experts and leader, Sanders has repeatedly raised doubts about Clinton’s judgement – including her support in the Senate for the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq that led to civil war and planted the seeds of the emergence of ISIS in the Middle East.
In response to Clinton’s Stanford speech yesterday, Trump wrote on Twitter, “Just watched Hillary deliver a prepackaged speech on terror. She’s been in office fighting terror for 20 years – and look where we are!”