Pulling punches

Hillary Clinton’s Terror Talk Lets Donald Trump Off the Hook

She’s staying restrained against a likely opponent who’s determined to take the fight to the ground.

03.23.16 11:00 PM ET

I have this memory of a moment in Hillary Clinton’s first Senate race. It was in Rochester, and Rudy Giuliani, her opponent at the time, had just sent out a fund-raising appeal accusing Clinton of “hostility toward America’s religious traditions,” which was rather hilarious considering that between the two Clinton was much the more religious, but Giuliani had learned quickly that that’s how you run against Hillary Clinton. Anyway, her press people came down to the lobby to tell us the bus wasn’t leaving as planned—she was going to have a press conference up on the mezzanine level to react to the mayor’s outrageous remarks.

So we waited, and she did, and you could see she was enraged, her hands trembling. But the words she spoke were so bland. She said nothing quotable. If she was this mad, I wondered, and if she altered her schedule to do this, why didn’t she just unload?

The speech she gave Wednesday at Stanford, which wasn’t planned and was called only yesterday so she could respond to Brussels and to Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s incendiary remarks, was better than that press conference. She did name-check both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, singling them out for their nutso post-Brussels rhetoric. She did the adult in the room thing. She went through her anti-terror plan, which is sound and sensible, if mostly unsurprising (one surprising part, to me: some tough talk for our European friends on how they need to get their act together on the police work front and maybe even start revoking passports). George Shultz and William Perry, two former Republican cabinet members (Perry served her husband), were in attendance. Several boxes were checked.

You’re going to see on cable and read elsewhere that this speech was a throw-down. But take it from a longtime Hillary watcher: This was a tentative Hillary.

Some of the lines were strong, about Cruz in particular. Of his promise to start policing all American Muslims, she said, “It’s hard to imagine a more incendiary, foolish statement.” She cited a New York City police spokesman who noted that Cruz “would treat the city’s nearly 1,000 police officers as threats.” Then she quoted Commissioner Bill Bratton: “Senator Cruz doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.”

All right, not bad, I thought. That was just the appetizer. Now she’s going to really unload on Trump. But she didn’t, really. She mentioned his name, and she talked about how torture is wrong and the America over which she presides will never use it. She said “insulting allies and partners” is not the way to win this war. But when it came to taking on the guy who’s 80 percent likely to her general election opponent, she was restrained.

I didn’t get it. The first thought would be that she’s afraid to go toe-to-toe with him, but that hasn’t been the case. Tuesday night in her Arizona victory speech, she laid into Trump, calling him a “demagogue” and invoking “people running for president of the United States who are literally inciting bigotry and violence.” But here, her punches were comparatively pulled.

About halfway through I wondered: If she really wanted to set the news cycle on fire, why was she in a paneled academic conference room, rather than in front of a cheering throng at a rally, just putting the lumber to the Donald? And the answer is, because that isn’t her way. She’s more comfortable doing something like this in front of people like Schultz and Perry than in front of the crowd. This is fine for now—judging from the news coverage, she seems to have accomplished her mission today. But it’s a potential problem come this fall, if she wants to get the better of Trump on the terror question.

This is a concern, right? Everybody says so: She’s well ahead of him in the polls, as of now, and the general thinking at the moment is that, while Trump muddles the usual right-left categories, he probably can’t gin up enough of an angry white vote to win. So she ought to beat him. But, says everyone, if there’s a terrorist attack… That’s the great concern, that Trump could exploit the panic and fear and waltz into the White House.

I say not so fast. First of all, she’s ahead of him now in polls on handling an international crisis by 29 points and on dealing with terrorism by 14 points. So there is no “terror deficit.” Even so, you never know how a national freak-out can change things.

I expect that Clinton will be able to stay ahead. She’ll have the backing of oodles of retired military people, who actually do respect her for the most part, and she’ll have more or less the entire foreign-policy establishment, including a respectable number of Republicans, who are repulsed by Trump. If something terrible happens, all these people will step forward to say they trust Clinton, they think Trump is a total loose cannon, and they don’t want him anywhere near the top of the command chain or the nuclear football. So she’ll have that going for her.

The problem will be that with Trump, it’s going to be a street fight. It’s going to be coarse and low and devoid of rules of any kind. And she can’t fight him from a seminar room when he’s in the beer hall staging a putsch. One of these days, she’s going to have to take the gloves off. Or put them on—she hasn’t even put them on yet.

Running against him is going to be a vile chore. She’s going to resist and resist and resist getting down into his gutter. But he’s going to drag her there, especially on terrorism, about which he’ll say any insane thing that pops into his ill-informed head. This speech was fine as far as it went, but she’s not going to beat Trump on terror from a seminar room.