Earlier this month, during a speech in San Diego, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton memorably attacked her general election opponent, Donald Trump, on foreign policy grounds. She said that he lacks the qualifications and temperament to be president and that electing Trump would be a “historic mistake” for the world. While she and her surrogates have used variations of this line of criticism against Trump before, this marked a special pivot toward November with her playing concretely to foreign affairs. The New York Times said Clinton’s speech “cheer[ed] her allies” and “worri[ed]” Trump’s. CNN's Stephen Collinson and Dan Merica declared, “There’s a new Hillary Clinton in town.” Tim Walker at The Independent called it “her most forceful attack to date.”
But while already-established Clinton supporters may see the former secretary of state's focus on foreign policy as a strong move, does it really mean anything to anybody else? Will playing up diplomacy help Clinton beat Trump?
As I know from interviewing them, many Trump supporters are impressed, not troubled, by their candidate’s unpredictability, bellicosity, and refusal to self-censor. Shannon Bow O'Brien, a lecturer on government at the University of Texas at Austin, tells me in an email she believes the voters most likely to support Trump are “probably fiercely patriotic, but not as concerned with nuances of foreign policy."
Also, Americans in general are famously ignorant of foreign affairs. (In 2006, three years after the Iraq War began,only 37 percent of Americans could locate Iraq on a map, according to a Roper poll.) Even Clinton’s harshest critics don’t deny that she has foreign policy experience, but attacking Trump’s judgment invites scrutiny of what many see as Clinton’s own poor record in this area: Why should they trust someone who voted for the war in Iraq and threw Libya into chaos? Now, with this week's release of the 800-page House Select Committee's Benghazi report — which didn't find new evidence of Clinton errors but highlighted details of how unprepared the country was during her tenure as secretary of state — playing up her foreign policy cred may leave her more vulnerable. O’Brien seconds my analysis: The more Clinton touts her record and judgment in this arena, she says, the more it “opens her up for … verbal attacks over Benghazi and questions over her judgment as well.”
There's another potential risk with Clinton emphasizing foreign policy: However unwarranted, maleness is often viewed as a necessary trait for representing America abroad. “Voters often deem men more credible on foreign policy issues," Karen Kedrowski, political science professor and dean of the college of arts and sciences at Winthrop University, tells me. However, Kedrowski adds, "She [Clinton] has some pretty significant foreign policy experience herself, so she’s well-positioned to challenge him [Trump].” Janni Aragon, professor of political science at the University of Victoria, agrees that Clinton can likely work around the fact that men are often perceived as stronger for international relations:
Women are [usually] perceived as experts on domestic issues related to children, education, health care, Social Security. But Clinton has expertise in foreign policy and national security … she is perceived as knowing her stuff.
Many polls back this perception up, as well. A Fox News poll from May had Clinton beating Trump on foreign policy by 10 points — even though that same poll found respondents had more faith in Trump to handle terrorism.
But Hilde Restad, a U.S. foreign policy expert and faculty member at Bjorknes University College in Norway, tells me that even if Clinton is considered stronger on foreign policy than Trump, playing it up may not ultimately translate into an advantage because of Trump's own outsider reputation in the world of politics. She tells me an email that she's “inclined to agree that attacking a guy who is anti-establishment for being outside of the establishment on foreign policy may not work.”
Who is Clinton hoping to win over with this line of attack? Restad says she “would think that Clinton is trying to reach those middle-of-the-road Republican voters who would otherwise be inclined to follow the party leaders.” Democratic political strategist Abigail Collazo tells me she believes Clinton’s comments are also directed at “moderate Republicans who think Trump is dangerous,” though they also appeal to “Democrats who were waiting for her to take the gloves off."
Political consultant and columnist Alexis Grenell tells me Clinton’s critique is “a smart strategy when considering Republican women who may not feel good about Trump and who rank national security as a primary concern.” Grenell sees it as wise to “paint Trump as erratic and unstable around something people have a visceral sense of fear about.”
Aragon has a different take. Far from attempting to woo Republican voters, she sees Clinton as “preaching to the choir … [by saying] ‘Don’t forget to vote for me; Trump is a wingnut.’” Aragon thinks Clinton's speech was intended to “remind [Democrats] to show up” to the polls in November.
In a recent Washington Post article on foreign policy and the 2016 election, Elizabeth Saunders, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, wrote about the effect of the Vietnam War on the 1968 election — or, really, the lack thereof. Political scientists who studied that era found that “most individuals’ votes were not based on Vietnam — because there was little difference between the public positions taken by Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon,” Saunders noted. She then argued, “That’s potentially true in 2016 as well … Hillary Clinton has taken more hawkish foreign policy positions than many recent Democratic candidates … bringing her positions closer to the more traditionally hawkish Republican side.” In other words, in terms of their perspectives on the role of the U.S. military and the proper use of force, Trump and Clinton may actually have too much in common for Clinton to sway voters by drawing a significant contrast.
Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, says she does not believe foreign policy will not be the deciding factor in this race for a simple reason: “Americans don’t vote for president based on foreign policy … They vote for president based on jobs.”
Image: Bustle/Carolina Wurtzel