Hillary Clinton sprinted for safe, sane and politically advantageous ground on terrorism Monday, embracing the term "radical Islamism" while decrying as invalid the notion that the United States can "declare war on an entire religion."
For those scoring at home, that's one point that appeals to the right and one aimed squarely at the left. It also happens to match up pretty well with the language that President George W. Bush used in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to draw a distinction between Muslims who wreak terror on the West and those (the vast majority) who do not.
Time will tell whether it's a savvy move or not, but Donald Trump left the center of the political field wide open with his proposed ban on foreign Muslim entry into the United States and by claiming credit for the vague and sadly predictable prognostication that at some point a person perverting the Islamic faith would again commit an act of terrorism.
Trump's reaction to the killing of 49 people, excluding the gunman shot dead by police, at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub over the weekend was one part boast, one part bravado and one part bigotry. It amounted to an effort to enhance his own political standing in the shadow of a tragedy, and, in doing so, he gave Clinton a window to do the same with the simple contrast of reason.
Trump even went so far Monday as to hint again that he believes — or in his parlance "some" believe — that President Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim and that his religion makes him soft on terrorism. Remember, Trump was a leader of the birther movement that questioned whether Obama was born in the United States, a thin veil for the calumny that the president hid his religion from the American public.
“We're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends” Monday. “And the something else in mind, you know, people can't believe it. People cannot — they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There's something going on.”
Obama's a Christian, not that it matters. And Osama bin Laden doesn't think Obama's soft on terrorism — in fact, bin Laden doesn't think at all anymore, thanks to Obama and the advisers on his team, including Clinton, who backed the 2011 raid on the terrorist's compound. While Trump was busy boxing himself into extremist positions on counterterrorism strategy — such as the Muslim ban and Obama birtherism — he inadvertently pointed Clinton to the political vulnerability in Democratic rhetoric on terrorism.
Like those of many Republicans, his arguments that Obama and Clinton are too soft rest in part on Obama's refusal to use the words "radical Islamic terrorism."
Clinton solved for that in appearances on several morning talk shows Monday in which she said she was happy to use terms such as "radical Islamism" that unite Republicans. But, she said, it's important not to stigmatize an entire religion — certainly because she understands, like Bush did, that if the United States is to effectively combat terrorism committed by zealots acting in the name of Islam, it must rely on the partnership of Muslims here and abroad.
Trump, who turned against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan after indicating support for them, articulates an incongruous view that the United States is in an existential war with Islam and should largely withdraw from the world. If he believes the first, how can he believe the second?
His policy pronouncements simply don't make sense.
And he's not usually nuanced enough to delineate between Muslims who seek stability and security, and the fanatics who turn to violence against civilians and say they're doing it for Allah. So even his rhetoric begs for the conclusion that he'd rather make enemies than allies out of the majority of Muslims. That's counterproductive, at best.
But perception can matter more on the campaign trail than reality. And the perception Trump is trying to create is that he would enhance American security by cracking down not just on terrorists but all Muslims. That can be appealing to folks who are enraged after mass killings. And Trump knows that one of the best ways to try to unify the Republican Party is to accuse Democrats of being weak on national security. It's a staple of GOP politics and one that worked well against Democratic nominees including Michael Dukakis and John Kerry.
Clinton used the term “radical Islamism” in an appearance on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" Monday, and followed it up with a lengthier explanation of her thinking on the "Today" show on NBC.
“I have clearly said that we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering innocent people. And, to me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing,” she said. “I'm happy to say either, but that's not the point.”
Many Democrats think Clinton is too hawkish, and her comments Monday will undoubtedly not sit well with some on the left. But if she has to use the language of the center-right to show just how extreme Trump is and to remind voters that she's a couple of ticks to Obama's right on national security, that's a small price to pay for seizing a position that is both consistent with American values and strategy (we're not at war with Islam) and speaks to the fear of terrorism committed in the blasphemous perversion of Islam.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.