Clinton uncorks her autumn ’16 campaign pitch

     Bernie Sanders, left, listens as Hillary Clinton speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    Bernie Sanders, left, listens as Hillary Clinton speaks during a Democratic presidential primary debate Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

    Deep in the recesses of Saturday night, when most Americans were likely immersed in pre-holiday merriment, Hillary Clinton methodically honed the themes that will buoy her in battle with the ’16 Republican foe.

    The Democratic National Committee booked this debate on a Saturday night (as it did last month as well) because its pro-Hillary leaders apparently wanted to ensure a small TV audience just in case Hillary screwed up. What a stupid decision. She’s the most seasoned debater in either party, and while the Republicans are clearly more entertaining (repugnantly so), she’s already auditioning her general election material. The average American may not be watching, but Republicans who are reconciling themselves to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz would be wise to heed her.

    I saw nothing on Saturday to shake my assumption that she’ll be the Democratic nominee. Martin O’Malley is a footnote, and Bernie Sanders is viewed by most rank-and-file Democrats as unelectable – not just because the word “socialist” freaks out the electorate, but because his unremittingly domestic focus is ill-suited for a campaign season dominated by national security issues and heightened terror concerns. Plus, he’s ill-suited for a debate stage; as Alan Schroeder, a debate expert at Northeastern University, points out: “Except for rare moments, Sanders delivers everything in the same relentless honk, as though he has swallowed a loudspeaker.”

    And while Sanders and O’Malley jab Clinton from time to time, they basically acknowledge her top-dog status by closing ranks and echoing the core contrast that she seeks to draw with the Republicans. They respect the racial and ethnic diversity of 21st-century America. Unlike the debating Republicans, they speak the language of inclusion. Unlike the debating Republicans, they don’t spend their time thundering in anger or talking the language of fear.

    Indeed, the Republicans’ debate tone is so awful that even Republican commentator-cheerleader Peggy Noonan is assailing their “braggadocio and carelessness.” On CBS News yesterday, she said: “The cumulative effect of the sort of harshness and even unlovingness of their rhetoric on immigration is going to, in the end, hurt them. I also think the sort of severity and drama of their language on ISIS makes them look radical” and “extreme.”

    If the GOP continues to cede the crucial centrist turf, Hillary will plow it. She did so on Saturday night – staying to the opponents’ left on domestic issues (“we have to prevent the Republicans from rolling back the progress that we’ve made”), and conveying a sensible hawkishness on national security. The latter is particularly important; she repeatedly sought to draw a sharp contrast with Trump’s nonsensical hawkishness:

    I worry greatly that the rhetoric coming from the Republicans, particularly Donald Trump, is sending a message to Muslims here in the United States and literally around the world that there is a “clash of civilizations,” that there is some kind of Western plot or even “war against Islam,” which then I believe fans the flames of radicalization….

    Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions….One of the best things that was done, and George W. Bush did this and I give him credit, was to reach out to Muslim Americans and say, ‘we’re in this together. You are not our adversary, you are our partner.’ And we also need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don’t fall on receptive ears. He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists. So I want to explain why this is not in America’s interest to react with this kind of fear and respond to this sort of bigotry….

    And the final thing I would say, bringing Donald Trump back into it: If you’re going to put together a coalition in the region to take on the threat of ISIS you don’t want to alienate the very countries and people you need to be part of the coalition.

    There’s no proof that ISIS recruiters are literally “showing videos of Donald Trump” – she may have oversold that one – but national security experts are certain that Trump is indeed an ISIS recruitment tool, that ISIS is using Trump in its propaganda. If Trump is the GOP nominee, Clinton clearly intends to draw not an ideological distinction, but, rather, a contrast between common sense and crazy.

    Her basic argument, which we’ll hear a lot next fall, is that America needs a steady, seasoned president who can handle the “difficult” and “complicated” Middle East: “All of these are very difficult issues. I know that. I’ve been dealing with them for a long time.” She got knicked a few times on Saturday night – moderator Martha Raddatz quizzed her closely about Libya’s chaos in the aftermath of Clinton-supported regime change; Sanders reminded us, again, that Clinton voted for W’s ’02 Iraq resolution – but nothing changed the Democratic dynamic or imperiled her general election pitch.

    And by the end of the ill-watched event, when Martin O’Malley referenced last week’s Republican debate by saying, “they can have their anger and they can have their fear, but anger and fear never built America,” he was echoing her. It’s game over on the Democratic side. Is it next autumn yet?

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    Of course, a candidate who highlights Middle East complexity is ill-positioned to woo dumb people who yearn for simplicity.

    In a national survey, released last week by Public Policy Polling, people were asked whether they would support or oppose the bombing of the Muslim city of Agrabah. Thirty percent of Republican primary voters said Yes (only 13 percent said No). Nineteen percent of Democratic primary voters said Yes (36 percent said No). But here’s where it gets hilarious: 33 percent of Chris Christie voters said Yes, and only six percent said No. And among Trump voters, a whopping 41 percent said Yes, only 9 percent said No.

    Agrabah doesn’t exist, except in the Disney movie Aladdin.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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