Hillary Clinton clearly believes that she enjoys a decided advantage over Donald Trump when it comes to foreign policy. Her speech today in San Diego launched what will clearly be a sustained attack on Trump’s qualifications as commander-in-chief. Citing his support for torturing the families of terrorists, his loose talk about using nuclear weapons on ISIS, and his calls for walking away from NATO and other allies, Clinton argued that Trump’s ideas about foreign policy are “dangerously incoherent.” His main tools of global statecraft, she said, would include bragging, mocking, and composing nasty tweets. In short, Clinton’s central theme is that Trump is simply “not up to the job” of president and if elected, Trump would lead America down a “truly dark path.”
Though most of Clinton’s attacks by this point have already been well rehearsed, the account against Trump is nonetheless devastating. Or at least the attack would be devastating to some other candidate in some other election year. This year, however, things look very different.
The most recent Washington Post/ABC News survey found Americans almost evenly divided over whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would do a better job keeping the country safe, dealing with terrorism, and dealing with international trade. Can these numbers be real? Can almost half of the American public honestly prefer a man who clearly has given so little thought to international affairs over a woman who has traveled the world, served as a United States senator, and spent four years as Secretary of State? The surprising answer is yes.
There are three things keeping Clinton from winning the foreign policy debate.
The first dynamic fueling this situation is partisan polarization. As research has begun to make clear, the United States now suffers from an extreme case of “partyism.” Republicans and Democrats now dislike each other so much that they oppose each other instinctively regardless of the facts – witness how much Republicans still think President Obama is a Muslim. On the question of keeping the country safe, the Post/ABC survey found that 84% of Democrats think Clinton will do a better job but 83% of Republicans think Trump will do a better job. The fact that Trump commands such partisan loyalty despite his clear lack of knowledge and experience illustrates just how powerful a force partisan polarization has become in the United States. This alone will make it very difficult for Clinton’s (or anyone else’s) substantive arguments to gain any traction.