Republicans believe that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future Popping the progressive bubble MORE’s record as secretary of State will be vulnerable to criticism in the aftermath of the terror attacks in Paris.
The GOP and its allies have ripped the former secretary of State for months about her role in setting the foreign policy agenda of the Obama administration — an agenda, they charge, has been too timid and has exacerbated the threats America faces.
But their overall argument may have seemed abstract or distant from many voters until the atrocities in Paris last Friday.
The subsequent emergence of a video from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) threatening an attack on Washington has also propelled national security and terrorism back to the top of the political totem pole.
America Rising, the most prominent Republican opposition research group, says that will give added traction to critiques of Clinton’s record as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.
“Her judgment and leadership abilities will come into question,” said the super-PAC’s Communications Director Jeff Bechdel in a telephone interview.
“Foreign policy is tough to get voters interested in,” Bechdel added. “But when something like Friday happens, people switch on.”
America Rising, which is neutral in the GOP race and is led by two of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s former top aides, has been compiling research on Clinton’s foreign policy for years and says it will be highlighting those issues in the coming weeks.
They won’t be the only ones. A new conservative super-PAC, Future45, which has links to billionaire investors Paul Singer and Kenneth Griffin and describes its purpose as “holding Clinton accountable,” has also insisted that Clinton’s time at the State Department presents a real target for her opponents.
Dan Conston, a senior adviser to the group, said that Clinton's foreign policy record was one “of sheer incompetence,” adding that “it merits scrutiny ahead.”
Clinton was the public face of the administration in an area where President Obama has gotten consistently low marks. In a CBS News/New York Times poll released last week, only 33 percent of voters approved of Obama’s conduct of foreign policy, whereas 52 percent disapproved. That was a sharp contrast to the view of his presidency overall, in which the public split virtually down the middle, with 45 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving.
Obama has also delivered some unfortunate sound bites on ISIS. He infamously compared the group’s capabilities to those of al Qaeda in a New Yorker interview published in January 2014, saying “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
Just the day before the Paris attacks, Obama had said ISIS had been “contained.”
Clinton rebuked Obama for that comment, implicitly but clearly, in the Democratic debate that took place on Saturday evening in Iowa.
She told CBS News’s debate moderator John Dickerson, “I think that we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”
Clinton is generally perceived as being more hawkish than Obama, going back to the 2008 primary between the two, when her earlier vote in the Senate to authorize the use of force in Iraq came back to haunt her. Last month, Clinton called for the establishment of a no-fly zone inside Syria, something the Obama White House has not supported.
But when it comes to ISIS in general, and the Paris attacks in particular, some Republican critics suggest Clinton is boxed in, stuck between the imperative of appearing tough enough for the electorate at large while also trying to appeal to conflict-averse liberal Democrats who could react badly to any perceived Clinton “betrayal” of Obama.
John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the presidency of George W. Bush, alleged that Clinton had been “incoherent” during Saturday’s debate.
“She doesn’t want to separate herself too far from President Obama ... but she knows that Obama was exposed by saying ISIS had been contained, and then 12 hours later we have 130 people dead because of ISIS,” Bolton said. “She wants daylight but is afraid of it at the same time.”
More broadly, several Republicans noted that their party had traditionally enjoyed an advantage with voters on matters of national security and terrorism. If those issues become central to the 2016 campaign, GOP consultant Ron Bonjean said, “Republicans will be on stronger ground and will have a wind at their backs.”
Another GOP strategist, Matt Mackowiak, who writes on The Hill’s Contributors blog, added that for Clinton, “the biggest problem is that when terrorism spikes, the public does not look to the Democratic Party.”
Democratic supporters do not see it that way, of course. They suggest that the old GOP advantage on the national security issue was eroded by the deeply unpopular Iraq War and by Obama’s success in ordering the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
Democrats also say that Clinton’s experience and steeliness are major assets in times of crisis, especially when contrasted with the leading Republican candidates, real estate mogul Donald TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
“The Republicans didn’t waste much time politicizing this,” said Democratic strategist Doug Thornell, referring to the Paris attacks. “But the folks leading the Republican primary have no foreign policy experience at all.”
Clinton, he added, could “prove she is the adult in the room” at such moments.
Still, Republicans believe that public anxiety about ISIS has the potential to erode Clinton’s core appeal as a seasoned, experienced politician.
“The challenge for groups like American Rising is that Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, so that must be an accomplishment,” said Bechdel, that group’s communications director. “It’s up to us to deconstruct that and say to voters, ‘Look at her record, things got worse’... and really push back on this idea that she has a set of accomplishments.”
Jonathan Swan and Jonathan Easley contributed.