Why you should care
Sometimes going after an opponent’s strength means going after her strength.
In this special election series, OZY looks at Hillary Clinton — both her past and what she may encounter as she battles for the White House. We also profile a key player from her inner circle, look at what could become her most influential domestic policies, explore the global issues that could disrupt her campaign and consider what her record in Haiti tells us.
Hit ’em where they’re hardest. That’s the logic behind the “attack their strength” campaign strategy made famous by George W. Bush campaign manager Karl Rove. And from the “swift-boating” of John Kerry’s heralded war record in 2004 to the Obama campaign’s transformation of Mitt Romney from successful businessman to vulture venture capitalist in 2012, it’s a strategy that has played a key role in recent U.S. presidential elections.
If Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016, then it is likely that her foreign policy experience, harvested over two decades as a secretary of state, senator and first lady, will tower over her GOP opponent’s, especially if that opponent is reality television star Donald Trump. As OZY has previewed elsewhere, Trump’s campaign will have no shortage of Clinton soft spots — from NAFTA to prior scandals to email servers — to target in the general election. But if Trump really wants to land a body blow on the Democrat, he will need to hit her where she’s strongest — and given the tenor of Trump’s campaign to date, no one should be surprised if that punch lands below the belt. (Neither candidate’s campaign responded to requests for comment.)
Both the Obama administration’s and Clinton’s own mixed record on foreign policy raise a number of questions that Trump can exploit in November, says Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University who has spent time talking to focus groups about these issues. Why did the team of Clinton and Obama support the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi without a clear alternative in place? Why didn’t they stop Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Ukraine, or China from expanding its military presence in the Pacific? In short, the GOP and Trump, predicts Schmidt, will attempt to “make the case that [Clinton’s] vast experience in foreign policy has been a vast disaster for American power and prosperity.”
Trump is far from alone in the view that Clinton’s “not a strong enough person to be president.”
It is not clear, however, how much traction Trump can get on such issues. For one thing, nuanced debate is not exactly his strong suit, nor has he yet articulated a clear foreign policy. “His foreign policy is like his Twitter policy,” says Jude Barry, a political consultant and founder of Catapult Strategies. “If you threaten me, I’ll attack you.” And whether or not Bernie Sanders is correct that Americans “are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails,” they are certainly sick and tired of hearing, and hearings, about Benghazi. Multiple House investigations into Clinton’s role in the September 2012 attack in Libya have blunted, not sharpened, the public’s interest in the subject.
Of course, when you have an outspoken candidate like Trump who can commandeer the media spotlight with innuendo and artful speculation about his opponents, you don’t need a House investigation or a super PAC-fueled ad blitz to attack an opponent’s strength: You just need a microphone. And by the time Trump has addressed Clinton’s, the swift boaters could look like political paddleboaters.
What might Trump’s argument look like? We may have already received a sneak peek. From his takes on “low-energy” Jeb Bush to “lightweight” Marco Rubio, the billionaire often floats his epithets as trial balloons over the media and electorate to see what takes off. And when an apparent bathroom break delayed Clinton’s return to the stage during a December Democratic debate, Trump took advantage of the opportunity to attack Hillary’s strength, literally. “I think that my words represent toughness and strength. Hillary’s not strong. Hillary’s weak, frankly,” Trump offered up on NBC’s Meet the Press.
He’s far from alone in the view that Clinton’s “not a strong enough person to be president.” Conservative media has latched onto Clinton’s health repeatedly, from concerns about a debate coughing fit that Breitbart claimed raised “further questions about her health and stamina” to the head injury she suffered from a fall in 2012 that Rove himself speculated might be a “traumatic brain injury.”
Concerns with a presidential candidate’s health may be legitimate, but Clinton and Trump are about the same age, and there has been nothing to suggest she has any real medical problems. No, Clinton’s physical condition and her “strength” are dog whistles for something else — something that could get even uglier as this election goes on. The fitness of the candidate who might become the first woman to serve as U.S. commander in chief has far more to do with being a woman and commander in chief than with being fit.
“There is a very good chance,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, “a Trump-Clinton campaign debate over foreign policy would have a gendered dimension.” Trump’s alpha-male aggression already makes him a magnet for the middle-aged white males who might be most skeptical of a female commander in chief, and Zelizer says he’s likely “to push a testosterone-filled campaign that plays on biases about women and the military.”
Will it work? One recent poll found two-thirds of Americans say the country is ready to elect a woman, up from around half in 2007. And Northeastern University professor Daniel Urman argues that Clinton, who has built up a reputation as a tough foreign-policy hawk (with her staff even asking journalists to describe her speeches as “muscular”), will not be vulnerable to “charges that she is weak or feckless on foreign policy” — at least not among voters who’d be open to voting for her anyway. Whether enough Americans pick her for the Oval Office, of course, remains to be seen.