It worked for Nixon.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Clinton Targets the 'Blame America First' Republicans

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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If President Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, were alive to see Hillary Clinton's speech on Thursday, I imagine she would smile.   

Clinton has done to Donald Trump what Kirkpatrick did to Clinton's party back in 1984. Clinton questioned the presumptive Republican presidential nominee's love of country and asked why he was so nice to the dictators who hate it.

It was a theme of Clinton's major address in San Diego. "If Donald gets his way, they will be celebrating in the Kremlin;" "I don't understand Donald's bizarre fascination with dictators who don't like America;" "I will leave it to the psychologists to explain his affection for tyrants," and so on.

In most election years it is the Republicans who do this kind of thing. It was an important line of attack for Richard Nixon. But the true master of the genre was Kirkpatrick, the foreign policy sage who got Reagan's attention with an essay in Commentary Magazine that derided Jimmy Carter's hostility toward authoritarian allies of America.

At the 1984 Republican convention Kirkpatrick delivered the wallop. "When the Soviet Union walked out of arms control negotiations, and refused even to discuss the issues, the San Francisco Democrats didn't blame Soviet intransigence," Kirkpatrick inveighed. "They blamed the United States. But then, they always blame America first." She went on like this for a while and the Republicans lapped it up.

There is, though, a danger with Clinton taking this approach to Trump because she is echoing a Republican criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy. After all, Obama was photographed in Havana with Raul Castro in front of a mural of Che Guevara. Republicans have picked apart Obama's Iran deal, which Clinton defended Thursday, for enriching the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism in exchange for only temporary nuclear concessions. 

Nonetheless, Clinton succeeded in projecting a toughness in her own right. She waxed poetic about American exceptionalism. "Americans work harder, dream bigger, and we never, ever stop trying to make our country and world a better place," she said.

Clinton also attacked Trump's temperament in a style reminiscent of President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 campaign (when Clinton herself was a Barry Goldwater supporter). She said Trump "is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes, because it's not hard to imagine him getting us into a nuclear war just because someone got under his very thin skin."

That of course is a variation on the Johnson campaign's famous attack on Goldwater, who had suggested he would consider using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. The Democrats ran a television ad that morphed a girl pulling petals from a daisy into a mushroom cloud.

The attacks on Trump's judgment were expected. Her campaign had already trotted out the Twitter hash tag #dangerousdonald. What was surprising in Clinton's speech was how she turned Trump's slogan -- "Make America Great Again" -- on its head.

In one particularly brutal passage, Clinton reminded her audience that Trump has been singing this tune for years. She said the real-estate mogul took out full-page newspaper ads in 1987, during the Reagan administration that said America's adversaries were laughing at us.

"You’ve got to wonder why somebody who fundamentally has so little confidence in America, and has felt that way for at least 30 years, wants to be our President," Clinton concluded.

Jeane Kirkpatrick couldn't have said it better.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net