Thursday afternoon, Hillary Clinton unloaded on Donald Trump. Drawing on a wealth of evidence from his business history, his statements during this campaign, and the rhetoric of his supporters, she slammed him as a chronic, paranoid race-baiter. This wasn’t an attempt to wound Trump’s candidacy. As my colleague Michelle Goldberg explained, it’s an attempt to kill it.
But the speech was also Clinton’s clearest signal yet as to how she plans to govern the country. She’s not using Trump to try to take down the whole Republican Party. She’s not going to tie him around the necks of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the rest of the congressional GOP. She plans to work with these men. She’s sinking Trump but sending lifeboats for Republicans.
Twenty seconds into her attack, Clinton sent her first conciliatory signal. Trump’s “divisive rhetoric,” she said, was “like nothing we’ve heard before from a nominee for president of the United States from one of our two major parties.” Many liberals would disagree. They think Trump has made explicit the racism to which other Republicans have appealed indirectly through attacks on figures such as Jeremiah Wright or Willie Horton. Clinton, who began life as a Republican, chooses not to see it—or at least put it—that way.
A few minutes later, speaking about Trump’s criticism of a Mexican American judge, Clinton brought up Ryan. “Even the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, described that, and I quote, as ‘the textbook definition of a racist comment,’ ” she noted. Clinton could have added that Ryan, after making that statement, continued to support Trump. She didn’t. She let the speaker off the hook.
Rather than tie Ryan to Trump, Clinton drove a wedge between them. She pointed out that the newly installed CEO of Trump’s campaign, Breitbart executive Steve Bannon, recently “railed against Speaker Paul Ryan for quote, ‘rubbing his social-justice Catholicism in my nose every second.’ ” In her next breath, she mocked Trump for being “the only presidential candidate ever to get into a public feud with the pope.” This wasn’t just a jab at Trump. It was an overture to Ryan. In negotiations on budgets and poverty, expect Clinton to play the Catholic social justice card.
Clinton even tossed a bouquet to Ted Cruz, the right-wing senator who has done everything possible to vilify her and block President Obama’s agenda. Reviewing Trump’s “conspiracy theories with racist undertones,” Clinton chose this example: “He suggested that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.” In a tone of incredulity and disgust, she surmised, “Perhaps in Trump’s mind, because Mr. Cruz was a Cuban immigrant, he must have had something to do” with the assassination. Her reference to Cruz’s heritage, like her reference to Ryan’s faith, was a reminder of the American melting pot—and a gesture of solidarity with both men against a bigot.
At times in this campaign, the collaboration of Ryan, McConnell, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, and other Republicans with Trump has so disgusted me that I’ve wanted to bury their whole party. Clinton made clear she doesn’t intend to try that. Her designation of Trump’s philosophy as “alt-right” presented, in effect, an invitation to Republicans to preserve their brand while rejecting Trump. “This is not conservatism as we have known it,” said Clinton. “This not Republicanism as we have known it. These are racist ideas, race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-women.” She described alt-right as an ideology that “rejects mainstream conservatism” in favor of “white identity.” That’s a dead ringer for Ryan’s standard line that right-wing racism is “identity politics.”
Clinton also appealed to Republican instincts on foreign policy. She framed Trump as the American branch of a global network of xenophobic nationalists, all of them doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clinton ridiculed Trump for staging a rally Wednesday with Nigel Farage, the leader of the British Brexit campaign who “regularly appears on Russian propaganda programs.” This was arguably the most ambitious section of her speech, linking the racism of Trump and Farage—an indictment that stirs anger on the left—with their service to Putin, which alarms the right. “American presidents from Truman to Reagan to Bush and [Bill] Clinton to Obama have rejected the kind of approach Trump is taking on Russia,” she said. “And we should, too.”
Why is Clinton, at this late stage of the campaign, still offering Republicans an exit ramp? Why is she working so hard to distinguish Republicanism, conservatism, and the past three GOP administrations from Trump? Maybe she’s just playing it safe, maximizing her potential election support instead of trying to kill off down-ballot Republicans. Maybe it’s the mainstream instincts she shares with her husband (she repeated some of Bill’s vintage lines in the speech). But a lot of it, I’d argue, is that she thinks like a policymaker. That’s why, in attacking Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims, she targeted its infeasibility: “How would they do that?” She’s not focusing on how many Republicans she can take down in the election. She’s focusing on how much help she can get from Ryan and McConnell after it’s over.
If Ryan, McConnell, or Priebus were braver, one of them (as my colleague Jamelle Bouie points out) would have given a speech like this one. He would have defined the GOP and the conservative movement in opposition to Trump. Instead, Clinton did the job for them. “This is a moment of reckoning for every Republican dismayed that the party of Lincoln has become the party of Trump,” she said:
Twenty years ago, when Bob Dole accepted the Republican nomination, he pointed to the exits in the convention hall and told any racists in the party to get out. The week after 9/11, George. W. Bush went to a mosque and declared, for everyone to hear, that “Muslims love America just as much as I do.” In 2008, John McCain told his own supporters that they were wrong about the man he was trying to defeat. … Barack Obama, he said, is a citizen and a decent person. We need that kind of leadership again.
We sure do. Shame on Ryan and McConnell for lacking that vision—and credit to Clinton for supplying it. This was the first gesture of her presidency. If you want a government that works, it bodes well.