The best thing you can say about Hillary Clinton’s performance at Wednesday night’s Commander in Chief Forum is this: Matt Lauer was worse.
Lauer’s first real question to Clinton concerned her emails. He then asked, by my count, five follow-up questions on the subject. He then turned to a handpicked audience member, who asked about, you guessed it: Clinton’s emails. Clinton held the stage for a total of 30 minutes. In a forum ostensibly devoted to national security, her emails occupied 10 of them. Neither Lauer nor the questioners asked either candidate about China, NATO, or climate change.
Unfortunately for Clinton, she’s not running against Matt Lauer. She’s running against Donald Trump. On substance, Trump was, as you might expect, absurd. (Fun fact: The only foreign-policy positions detailed on his website are veterans affairs and trade with China.) But in crass political terms, Trump did well. He did well because he capitalized on the public’s sour mood: He said the war in Iraq was a disaster, the withdrawal from Iraq was a disaster, the war in Libya was a disaster, and the management of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a disaster. And he blamed Clinton because she was part of those decisions and he was not.
Moreover, he offered a foreign-policy vision that’s more appealing than the standard Republican line. Like most Republicans, Trump promised to rebuild the military and vanquish America’s foes. But unlike John McCain or Marco Rubio, he emphasized that he’d vanquish those foes quickly, without getting bogged down in messy problems far away. Can Trump achieve that? Nope. Politically, however, he channeled Ronald Reagan, who spent massively on the military, loudly waved the flag, yet invaded only Grenada. Like Reagan, Trump on Wednesday night offered cost-free belligerence, which is the kind Americans usually like best.
Clinton, on the other hand, offered no vision at all. She was at her best discussing the processes of government. She explained, for instance, that when people leave the military, the Department of Defense often doesn’t transmit their records to the VA.
But on broader themes, she was lousy. Asked about her vote to invade Iraq, she apologized, and said, “It is imperative that we learn from the mistakes like after action reports are supposed to do, so we must learn what led us down that path so it never happens again.” Makes sense. But Clinton never explained what she had learned. She justified the war in Libya by arguing that Muammar al-Qaddafi had been about to massacre civilians and that if America had done nothing, Libya would followed Syria into civil war. But Libya has followed Syria into civil war, anyway. She said America would defeat ISIS in Iraq without sending in ground troops. But she said nothing about why ISIS exists and about how America should respond to the failure of the Iraqi and Syrian states, a failure that will endure even once ISIS is gone.
To be fair, Clinton is in a tough spot. As the de facto incumbent, she owns Obama’s failures. But because of her vote on Iraq, she owns George W. Bush’s too.
Still, she needed a story to counter Trump’s. Since she’s embraced Obama, that story should have echoed his. She could have started by talking about how, under Republican rule, America grew drastically overextended and lost much of its legitimacy in the world. Since then, she might have continued, America has pulled back from costly and bloody wars, strengthened its position in key regions like Asia and Latin America, begun addressing climate change, and used diplomacy, not war, to stop Iran’s nuclear program. America has also rebounded economically more effectively than its competitors. The next chapter in this American comeback is using diplomacy to forge coalitions that not only defeat ISIS, but also end the civil wars in Syria and Iraq so nothing likes ISIS emerges again.
That story has its problems. But at least it challenges Trump’s narrative of stupidity and disaster. It gets Clinton out of her defensive crouch on Libya and Iraq. It reminds Americans that, in fundamental ways, the US is in a better international position than when Obama took office. And it offers a sense of how she would make America stronger still.
When it comes to policy, Hillary has always done micro better than macro. But on Wednesday night, Trump exposed what a problem that is. On national security, he has an argument. Substantively, it’s ignorant and reckless, but to many Americans, it’s reassuring. And people know what it is. Her argument is that she’s not him. Wednesday night showed why, at least on foreign policy, that’s not enough.
The first presidential debate is less than three weeks away. She’s lucky it wasn’t Wednesday night.