Clinton brings moxie to fight with Trump

Getty Images

Hillary Clinton opened fire with both barrels on Donald Trump on Thursday in a speech that was instantly recognized as a big moment in the incipient general election campaign.

Clinton called Trump “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency during a foreign policy address in San Diego that was infused with disdain for the presumptive GOP nominee.

The tone and tenor of Clinton’s speech elated Democrats, who have been concerned about opinion polls showing a closer-than-expected race between her and Trump.

“She f*ckin’ rocked it!!” exulted Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen in an email to The Hill.

Fears had also been growing about Clinton’s perceived weaknesses as a campaigner as she struggles to close-out Bernie Sanders in a tougher-than-expected Democratic primary.

The doubts were quieted in the aftermath of the speech.

Clinton argued that Trump’s version of foreign policy was comprised of “not even really ideas, just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds and outright lies” and asserted that one of his few skills was “composing nasty tweets.” She added — correctly — “I’m willing to bet he’s writing a few right now.”

On Twitter, Trump complained that “Crooked Hillary no longer has credibility” and followed up by asserting that the former secretary of State was “reading poorly” from a teleprompter and “doesn’t even look presidential.”

The businessman’s pushback was seen by some as evidence that the former secretary of State had got under his skin. 

Meanwhile, the acclaim for Clinton’s address was near-universal in liberal quarters. The Huffington Post declared it “her best speech yet.” David Axelrod, a former key aide to President Obama who is now a CNN contributor, tweeted that Clinton was “Prosecuting @realDonaldTrump with his own words & to good effect. Brutal takedown.”

Clinton’s remarks came as her lead against Trump in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) national polling average has dwindled to a negligible 1.5 percentage points. 

She had also been pushed onto the defensive after a report last week from the State Department’s inspector general that was starkly critical of her use of a private email account and server while she was secretary of State.

Clinton has failed to definitively end the intraparty challenge from Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont. Her speech was delivered in California’s second-largest city five days before the Golden State primary, where polls have shown Sanders eating into her once-substantial lead.

By focusing her fire so vigorously on Trump, Clinton was also helping herself in the primary fight, some Democrats said. She did not mention Sanders once in the 35-minute address.

“Positioning yourself as the only one to beat Trump is a way to belittle Bernie Sanders,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who has worked for Clinton in the past but is not doing so in this election cycle. 

Sheinkopf added that the vigor of Clinton’s broader argument against Trump “calms nerves among Democrats overall, and might make it clear that Donald Trump does not have the capacity to do things that America needs done now. That’s the argument.”

To many observers, the style of the speech was just as important as its substance. 

Trump’s rivals in the GOP primary had flailed as they sought to find the right tone to counter the businessman. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the most part sought a moral high ground over Trump, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla,) was reduced to innuendo about the businessman’s genitalia — an attack he later said he regretted. Nothing seemed to work.

Democrats of late had been more enthused by Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) salvoes against Trump than by anything Clinton was doing. Last week, Warren called Trump “a small, insecure money-grubber” in a speech in Washington. 

But Clinton might have hit a political sweet spot by fusing stark, personal criticisms of Trump with a serious discussion of national security, her admirers say. 

“This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes, because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because someone got under his very thin skin,” Clinton said. “We cannot put the security of our children and grandchildren in Donald Trump’s hands, we cannot let him roll the dice with America.”

Paul Begala, a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton during his 1992 run for the White House, said in an email, “This speech is a Framing Speech, and a damn good one. It both hits Trump hard — in a biting, quotable way — and elevates the decision to: Who do you trust with the nuclear codes? The bigger the job, the smaller Trump looks.”

Begala added that the speech could also help unite the Democratic Party as the long and sometimes-bitter Clinton-Sanders primary draws to a close.

“Imagining Trump’s stubby little finger on the nuclear button makes us forget our petty, intraparty spats,” he said.

The speech had one more intriguing feature. It overshadowed an announcement from Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that he would be voting for Trump in November. Ryan aide Brendan Buck tweeted that people should “feel free to call it an endorsement.”

The Speaker had caused a stir last month when he declared during a CNN interview that he was “just not ready” to back Trump. On Thursday, Trump welcomed the news that Ryan was now on board. 

But if Ryan intended the announcement to offer effective counter-programming to Clinton, the unexpected vehemence of her speech seemed to thwart him.

Independent experts believed that Clinton was unveiling her central general-election argument on Thursday. 

“Her best argument, to me, is that Trump is unfit for the presidency,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “This speech made that argument in a fairly effective way, and we’ll be hearing a version of this speech for the next several months.”

Sheinkopf, the Democratic strategist, put a similar view in more colorful terms.

“The argument is quickly becoming that this is the woman with the moxie to take on the guy who seems to be dominating the discussion — and if she can do that, then she also has the moxie to protect your family and the country.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Marco Rubio Paul Ryan
See all Hill.TV See all Video