Hillary Clinton’s Line of Attack

The Democratic front-runner is developing a smart political response to the danger of terrorism. 

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaking in Iowa City, Iowa, Dec. 16, 2015.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaking in Iowa City, Iowa, Dec. 16, 2015.

Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters

The Republican Party has a cultural angle on terrorism: The people who target America are radical Muslims. Their version of Islam, if not Islam itself, is the problem. Anyone who refuses to concede this, conservatives assert, is soft on terrorism.

Liberals don’t like this sectarian approach. They reject religious stereotypes. But they have to grapple with the reality that today’s terrorism, overwhelmingly, is coming from within Islam. How can they assure the public that they understand the threat while opposing the demonization of Muslims?

In a debate in New Hampshire on Saturday night—their first since the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino—the Democratic presidential candidates tried out several responses. It turns out they have some good lines of attack.

Their simplest argument is that politicians who bash Islam help ISIS recruit terrorists. ISIS wants a religious war, and Islamophobes oblige them. In the debate, ABC’s David Muir asked Hillary Clinton about polls showing that 36 percent of Americans support Donald Trump’s call to bar foreign Muslims from the United States. Clinton replied:

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 [and] 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.

Clinton’s campaign has no evidence for the claim about videos. But some intelligence analysts say ISIS does use Trump’s rhetoric to persuade Muslims that America hates them. What’s notable is that Clinton, in this case, is reaching for a connection between Islam and terrorism. She recognizes that it’s to her advantage.

In particular, Clinton denounced Republican rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations.” She said this rhetoric feeds radicalization in the Muslim world. Clinton has used this phrase before. In a Nov. 19 address to the Council on Foreign Relations, she assailed “the obsession in some quarters with a ‘clash of civilization’ or repeating the specific words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ ” It’s no accident that these are the pet phrases, respectively, of Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz.

The Democrats’ second argument is that anti-Muslim rhetoric antagonizes Islamic governments whose help we need to defeat ISIS. This argument appeals to Americans’ anxiety about going it alone in another Middle East ground war. On Saturday, Clinton said Arab and Kurdish forces, not U.S. troops, should lead the fight against ISIS. She also invoked Trump’s ban on Muslims, reasoning: “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.”

During the debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders added a populist twist to this line of attack. He framed a U.S.-led ground war against ISIS as a bailout for Arab freeloaders. Sanders wasn’t shy about playing the Muslim angle: “This is a war for the soul of Islam. The troops on the ground should not be American troops. They should be Muslim troops.” He mocked wealthy Arab regimes for financing soccer’s World Cup instead of helping “the American military and the American taxpayers” fight ISIS.

But it was Clinton who came up with the debate’s most interesting pitch. She called for a “coalition at home” against ISIS, similar to our coalition abroad. In the debate, she used this phrase three times. Our “first line of defense against radicalization,” she argued, is Muslim Americans:

I met with a group of Muslim Americans this past week to hear from them about what they’re doing to try to stop radicalization. They will be our early warning signal. That’s why we need to work with them, not demonize them, as the Republicans have been doing.

In a general election, these arguments give Democrats a viable platform against anti-Muslim rhetoric from the right. But the Democrats can’t just play offense. They also have to address the genuine connections between terrorism and Islam. On Saturday, they tried to do so. Here are some of the messages they tried out:

1. We need vigilance in mosques. ABC’s Martha Raddatz asked Clinton about terrorists using encrypted communications. Clinton acknowledged that the conflict between security and privacy was tricky. “If we can’t know what someone is planning” an attack, Clinton suggested, “We are going to have to rely on the neighbor or, you know, the member of the mosque, or the teacher, somebody, to see something.”

What’s notable in this exchange is that Raddatz didn’t bring up the Muslim angle. Clinton did. That’s because the question was about surveillance, and Clinton was trying to narrow it. Sometimes it’s better to promote voluntary surveillance within a targeted community than to end up with involuntary surveillance everywhere.

2. If you see something, say something. When Clinton was asked about Trump’s proposal to bar foreign Muslims, she urged the public to focus on people’s behavior, not their religion. “We need to have everybody in our country focused on watching what happens and reporting it if it’s suspicious, reporting what you hear,” she said. Then she added a caveat: “making sure that Muslim Americans don’t feel left out or marginalized at the very moment when we need their help.” The reason for the caveat was obvious: Muslims will draw greater suspicion.

Later, Muir asked about the “neighbor in San Bernardino who reportedly witnessed packages being delivered to that couple’s home” but “didn’t report it because they were afraid to profile.” Sanders, in response, offered this advice: “Obviously, if you see suspicious activity, you report it. … [If] somebody is loading guns and ammunition into a house, I think it’s a good idea to call 911.” The audience laughed. But when guns and ammo arrive in boxes, how does a neighbor know they’re guns and ammo? What allegedly caught the neighbors’ attention in San Bernardino was that the packages were being delivered to “Middle Easterners.” When you counsel vigilance, you can expect profiling.

3. Widows and orphans first. Muir pointed out that most Americans, in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, oppose accepting Middle Eastern refugees. Clinton replied that refugees are extensively vetted and we shouldn’t abandon our country’s tradition of welcoming the world’s victims. But then she added: “I would prioritize widows and orphans and the elderly. … That would, I think, give the American public a bit more of a sense of security about who is being processed and who might end up coming as refugees.”

That’s a significant concession. Clinton is proposing to counter regional or religious discrimination—against Arabs or Muslims—with discrimination based on age and sex. Drawing on her reading of the public’s “sense of security”—i.e., polls—she’s prepared to appease us by tightening the immigration spigot, lest we elect a Republican who might shut it off altogether.

If you were still a kid when President Bill Clinton left office in 2001, you might not remember that this is how he captured the White House and governed the country for eight years. He was a master at reading the public, finding the middle, deserting the left, and beating the right. So was his wife. On sex and economics, the country is more liberal today than it was back then. But on terrorism and foreign policy, it’s more conservative. Hillary Clinton understands this. And that’s how she’s running her campaign for president.