Can the way a candidate handles Trump tell you something about how he will handle Putin? Liberal journalists have been asking this recently to discredit mainstream conservative candidates who are otherwise presumed to be strong on foreign policy.
Last week, the main super-PAC supporting Hillary Clinton released a television ad picking up on the theme. The clip likens the Republican candidates to pussycats and poses the question: “If they can’t even stand up to Donald Trump, why would anyone think they are strong enough to lead America?” But the answer to this rhetorical question might disappoint those hoping Trump’s bull in a China shop routine will take down the rest of the field.
Egging On the Fracas
Whether he is talking about Muslims, illegal immigrants, women, or just about any other subject, Donald Trump says outrageous things regularly. This pleases the media, not only because it boosts their ratings and allows them to signal their own virtue by condemning his every word, but because they realize that if Trump becomes the GOP nominee, Clinton will cruise to the White House. As pleasant as this situation is for them, they also understand that they need to hedge their bets and focus some attention on why we should despise the other Republican candidates just as much as they do Trump.
Some pundits have discovered that Trump himself is the best weapon to use against the Republican field. It is an easy formula: goad a candidate into attacking Trump, then sit back and enjoy Trump’s counter-attack. If the candidate does not take the bait, attack the candidate for not having the courage to fight Trump. They are like that kid in the schoolyard trying to stir up a fight: “You going to let him get away with saying that? Bok, bok, bok! Chicken!”
Peter Beinart of The Atlantic best typifies this special brand of punditry. He calls the Republican candidates—all of them—“political cowards” for not expressing adequately heartfelt disapproval of Trump. “Bush, Kasich, and the other GOP candidates won’t clearly repudiate Trump because they’re afraid of angering his voters,” writes Beinart. “They’re also afraid of angering him.”
Taken as sincere claims, Beinart’s assertions are demonstrably false. Many candidates have vigorously denounced Trump. Sen. Rand Paul has called Trump a clown, and relentlessly attacked him to kick off the first debate. Ohio Gov. John Kasich took a similar approach, denouncing Trump as an unserious candidate in the third debate. Beinart’s own article references a Kasich ad comparing Trump to Hitler.
Scott Walker and Rick Perry have already fallen on their swords and suspended their campaigns largely as a consequence of attacking Trump. Before his exit, Walker had this to say of Trump: “He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.” He didn’t exactly mince words.
Respond to Trump 24/7 Or You’re Not Serious, Like Me
But this isn’t enough for the liberal commentariat. Presumably, unless all the candidates are at all times thumping their chests and virtue-signaling over Trump’s latest zinger, they are cowards. Take, for example, what Beinart has to say about Bush’s criticism of Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border. Beinart notes that Bush traveled to the Texas border and denounced Trump’s proposal. By Beinart’s own account, Bush said: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.”
But The Atlantic columnist has no patience for reasoned argumentation. As far as he’s concerned, Bush missed an opportunity to signal his virtue by calling Trump a bigot. Therefore, we are supposed to believe Bush is too much of a coward to be the president of the United States? That’s some penetrating analysis.
Beinart is not alone, of course. Look at this tweet from The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs:
Yes, the gall of Sen. Marco Rubio to not hover over his laptop so he can respond in real time to every half-baked proposal Trump comes out with. Is Jacobs seriously insinuating that Rubio spent those three hours thinking deeply about whether he agreed with Trump’s musings about not letting Muslims into the country? Anybody remotely familiar with the differences between Trump and Rubio on foreign policy would find that ridiculous.
In a variation on the theme, Paul Waldman writing for The Week complains, “the worst any of them can bring themselves to say is that Trump’s ideas are nutty. Not that he’s a bigot, not that he’s using the politics of hate, not that he’s falling in line with a sordid history of racism.”
The Appropriate Response Is a Sidestep
What these commentators don’t seem to understand is that there is more to running for president than calling people names. Any candidate running for president needs to do two things: 1) make his or her own case for the presidency and 2) demonstrate that he or she is better suited than the other people running. That is it. There is no requirement to obsessively comment on what one particular candidate has to say, no matter how headline-grabbing.
Rubio’s strategy for dealing with Trump, for example, is spot-on. This August on “Meet The Press,” he said, “I’ve made a decision here with Donald Trump, you know, if I comment on everything he says, my whole campaign will be consumed by it. That’s all I’ll do all day. We’ll let him answer for what he says and so forth. At this point, I mean, we’ve got to focus on our message. Otherwise, my whole campaign will be what — how do you feel about what Donald Trump said about something. He says something every day.” That is how a rational adult runs for president. Rubio’s campaign is about Rubio, and it is juvenile to insinuate he is a coward or a “pussy” for that.
I also question the premise underlying these attack pieces that there is something cowardly about choosing not to alienate Trump’s supporters. The bulk of Trump’s supporters, contrary to popular belief, are not knuckle-dragging racist xenophobes. Trump takes a shock jock approach in order to gain attention and bring certain issues center stage. His followers may not be policy wonks, but they know the present system is not working for them.
These people, like Trump, may not have a lot of workable solutions, but they are reacting to real concerns. A wise candidate would sidestep Trump, not just denounce him, and start offering the people flocking to him realistic solutions. Rubio takes exactly that approach in his own new campaign commercial, in which he shows respect and empathy for the fears and frustrations driving people toward anti-establishment candidates.
Notice the Double Standard for Democrats
I would be remiss not to point out the Left’s double standard here. Let’s look for a moment at some of the outrageous things Clinton has said. She said, for instance, that she would bring to justice the people who made that film offending Muhammad. She said this to the grieving families of those killed in Benghazi days after she told her daughter and the Egyptian prime minister that protests over the film had nothing to do with the attack, and that American personnel had been killed in a terrorist attack.
Do Democrats think Bernie Sanders is a coward for not condemning Clinton’s cynicism? Not only did Sanders ignore Clinton’s disgraceful treatment of the families (not to mention the broader public she supposedly served) he goes out of his way to chastise the few people in the press who are actually talking about her flagrant lies.
Last month, Clinton claimed in a tweet, “Every survivor of sexual assault deserves to be heard, believed, and supported.” That is the standard anti-due process line advanced by progressives these days, so no Democrat would be expected to condemn that remark. But should we hold her fellow Democratic presidential candidates to account for not seizing the opportunity to express moral outrage over a legal defense strategy she previously adopted that painted a 12-year-rape victim as someone who was emotionally unstable and sought older men? Are Sanders and O’Malley cowards for letting that slide?
To be clear, I have never understood why public figures are expected to condemn the inappropriate remarks or actions of other people. The same goes for apologies. The question “Do you think so-and-so needs to apologize?” makes me sick every time I hear it. I am here pointing only to the double standard of the press demanding Republicans answer for Trump, but not asking Democrats to answer for Clinton.
Presidential Politics Isn’t Foreign Policy
All of this faux concern over the Republicans’ alleged timidity tells us something important about what the hard Left thinks it means to be tough on foreign adversaries. Here’s Beinart: “When it comes to Vladimir Putin, ISIS, and Iran, the GOP candidates love denouncing ‘appeasement.’ Yet when it comes to Trump, appeasement is their core strategy.”
So Beinart thinks the Republicans should deal with Trump in the same way they would deal with Putin and other global menaces? On its face, this is absurd. Trump is a populist running to be the presidential nominee of his party. He may be a bit crass, but he is not a revanchist Eurasian autocrat. He is not suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program. He hasn’t cut off anyone’s head. Each of these problems requires different strategies, and all of them require a different form of toughness.
Being tough with Putin requires bolstering the defenses of the neighbors he is bullying, applying financial pressure through sanctions, and countering his propaganda by exposing his lies. Being tough with the Iranians would have meant holding firm to our objectives in negotiating with them, expressing a willingness to walk away from the table, and calling them out for lying and cheating. Being tough with ISIS . . . well, suffice it to say it would begin with recognizing that they are motivated by a radical Islamic ideology.
Basically, being tough means formulating clear objectives based on your values and interests, settling on a strategy to reach those goals, and not veering from that strategy just because the other guy wants you to. By this measure, Rubio’s approach to Trump, as quoted above, should be considered tough. Indeed, his strategy has paid dividends, as Rubio has emerged as Trump’s most formidable rival.
Emoting Is No Substitute For Genuine Toughness
For the Left, by contrast, toughness is the antithesis of the rational and strategic. They take the Republicans for cowards for not renouncing Trump loudly enough. They aren’t tough enough to lead. “Tough,” for Clinton supporters, seems to reduce to something like an emotional heartfelt statement or action. The Right and Left thus have deeply conflicting views of toughness.
Coming back to the Trump-Putin comparison, I think the Left’s truncated understanding of toughness provides a clue to its failed approach to foreign policy.
When Democrats hear Republicans saying we need to be tougher on Iran, ISIS, or Putin, they assume Republicans want to saddle up on their high horse and saunter unthinkingly into a war of righteous principle. That is what being tough means to the Left. (Exhibit A: the Left’s “tough” approach on gun control.) Being tough is mean. It is not who we are (unless we are being mean to Republicans).
That is perhaps why President Obama constantly assumed the only alternative to the Iran deal was an all-out war, although no one was calling for that. Or why he keeps saying he won’t launch another Iraq-style invasion to defeat ISIS, when no one is suggesting a U.S. presence near that size would be needed. His critics were telling him he needed to be tougher, and he equates toughness with emotion-driven overreaction.
Preening and Strategy Aren’t the Same Thing
In lieu of toughness, the Left substitutes moral preening, and moral preening substitutes for strategy. Obama seems to believe ISIS will inevitably fail just because it does not represent the true Muslim faith; because, as he puts it, “its ideology is bankrupt.” Over a year ago, he assured us ISIS would fail because “People like this ultimately fail, they fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy.” So he sees no real need to apply the military force needed to stop the jihadists.
Instead he messages young Muslims on the true meaning of Islam and lectures Americans on the proper moral response we ought to have to Muslim-Americans and refugees. It is virtue, apparently, not things like military, political, or economic power, that determine the progress of history. This is wishful thinking. While morality and justice are certainly admirable objectives, the president seems to think they are a substitute for strategy.
Look also at Russia. When Russia seized Crimea, Obama simply let everyone know that Putin was on the wrong side of history, and announced that Putin’s land grab would prove costly for Russia. All there was to do from Obama’s perspective was to sit back and wait for history to serve Putin his comeuppance.
To be fair, in this instance, the administration at least implemented a sanctions regime to nudge history along a bit. But Putin hasn’t folded yet. In fact, he’s expanded his military’s reach into the Syrian theater, where he promptly bombed the fighters we had been training. At times like these it would be nice to have a strategy based on something a little more concrete than being on the right side of history.
Just Sit Back and Let History Do My Job
But Obama believes in the arc of history. It is a doctrine of faith that drives his foreign policy. It explains, I think, why he rejects American exceptionalism and leadership. Others fear that when America withdraws, dangerous power vacuums emerge. But President Obama seems to think that America needs to stand back and let history take over.
Some action—even military action—might be needed around the margins, but certainly no tough action. It is history’s job, not America’s to be tough with our adversaries. When America tries to be tough, the Left thinks it is just allowing emotional exuberance to get in the way of history’s march toward a better world.
The Left confuses toughness with “tough talk” and bluster, and sees it as a virtue when engaging in partisan politics, but a vice when dealing with adversaries. Naturally, they would like to see the Republican candidates direct more of that sort of toughness at Trump. But for conservatives toughness has more to do with conviction and perseverance in attaining one’s goals. It is a virtue both home and abroad, and requires steadiness of mind, rather than reactionary impulses.
One probably cannot glean too much about what a candidate’s foreign policy will look like based on the way he or she conducts a presidential campaign. But it would certainly be a mistake to read passivity, no less “cowardice,” into the way Republicans are handling Trump.