Clinton Grooves a Pitch, Trump Whiffs

June 09, 2016

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have pivoted to the general election—and their attacks on each other so far suggest that the next 152 days will be ugly.

Start with Mrs. Clinton. Last week in San Diego she gave what was billed as a major speech on foreign affairs. Yet in about 4,000 words she devoted only 714 to defending her record as secretary of state and 961 to articulating future policies. She spent 2,115 words—51%—bashing Mr. Trump.

Mrs. Clinton lacerated him for holding “dangerously incoherent” ideas and described him as “temperamentally unfit” for the presidency, “not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.” Her speech was focused, well constructed and (for her) adequately delivered. But in this era of social networks, voters collect information in diffuse ways; it will take more than one speech to firmly plant these impressions with voters.

In turn, Mr. Trump must answer attacks more effectively. His response was surprisingly weak for someone who prides himself on being a counterpuncher. Mrs. Clinton’s speech provided a treasure trove of subjects for him to punch back on: He could have attacked her for failing to reset U.S.-Russia relations, to end North Korea’s nuclear program, to stop Libya from descending into chaos after Moammar Gadhafi’s removal, or to keep ISIS from establishing a Middle East caliphate.

Mr. Trump could have criticized her for backing the Iranian nuclear deal. He could have undermined her claim that she fought for “better services for our veterans” by quoting her statement last year that problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs weren’t “as widespread as it has been made out to be.”

He could have offered voters a simple choice: If you like America’s standing in the world today and believe in the Obama administration’s foreign policy, vote for Hillary; if not, vote for Trump.

Instead, Mr. Trump raged that her “pathetic” speech “had nothing to do with foreign policy.” He then offered the press his chin. In her speech, Mrs. Clinton said that he would encourage Japan to acquire nuclear weapons. This, Mr. Trump, replied, was a lie. But in an April 3 interview on Fox News Sunday, he said that Japan might be better off defending itself, “including with nukes.”

Mr. Trump also attacked Mrs. Clinton for voting in favor of the Iraq war, boasting, “I’m the one who didn’t want to go in Iraq.” The record shows otherwise. After supporting the Iraq war before its 2003 start, Mr. Trump publicly opposed it only in the late summer of 2004.

These missed opportunities suggest that Mr. Trump doesn’t have advisers who look at Mrs. Clinton’s utterances and suggest ways to go after her—or who track his utterances and tell him to stop contradicting himself. His campaign badly needs discipline, a plan of attack, loads of research and robust rapid-response capability.

In the months ahead, Mrs. Clinton will say that she is experienced and qualified, while Mr. Trump is risky, dangerous and repulsive. He will say that he represents the change voters crave, while she would be a third term for President Obama. They can’t make these points only once or even episodically: Winning presidential candidates methodically and relentlessly prosecute their campaign’s narrative, freshening and extending it every week.

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