NEW YORK — The most experienced national security candidate officially launched her 2016 campaign Saturday with a speech that touched broadly but lightly on foreign policy. Addressing an enthusiastic crowd on Roosevelt Island, Hillary Clinton spoke more about her family’s hard-won lessons than about the multilateral but muscular liberal interventionism she championed as President Obama’s secretary of state.
Standing in Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park with the new World Trade Center tower over her shoulder, Clinton pointed across the East River to United Nations headquarters, “where I represented the country many, many times.” The outdoor setting was “a place with absolutely no ceilings” — an allusion to her bid to become the first woman president of the United States.
In what was billed as a “formal announcement speech” after a soft rollout eight weeks ago, Clinton tied her foreign-policy views to a central campaign theme: that she’s a fighter. She said the U.S. must fight “to harness all of America’s power, smarts, and values to maintain our leadership for peace, security, and prosperity.”
No other country, she said, “is better equipped to meet traditional threats from countries like Russia, North Korea, and Iran – and to deal with the rise of new powers like China. No other country is better prepared to meet emerging threats from cyber attacks, transnational terror networks like ISIS, and diseases that spread across oceans and continents. As your president, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep Americans safe.”
Clinton spoke of her eight years as a U.S. senator, during which she served on the Armed Services Committee. “I worked to maintain the best-trained, the best-equipped, the strongest military, ready for today’s threats and tomorrow’s,” she said. “And when our brave men and women come home from war or finish their service, I’ll see to it they get not just the thanks of a grateful nation, but the care and benefits they deserve.”
Top campaign hands said she will roll out a number of specific policy proposals over the summer, but on Saturday, she did not outline any on foreign policy and national security, and she’s not expected to until deeper into the race. (On Friday night, campaign manager Robby Mook and campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri spoke at length at a Politico event, making no mention of Clinton’s national-security credentials and taking no questions on the subject.)
But if her speech showcased her softer side, her campaign also released a video, “Fighter.” Meant to emphasize her tenaciousness and perseverance, it hearkened back to her 2008 campaign, when she was eager to avoid being seen as unserious due to gender stereotypes. The video touches on her well-known speech on women’s rights and human rights in Beijing as first lady when her husband Bill Clinton was president, and describes how she continued that fight as secretary of state.
Clinton’s light embrace of foreign policy and national security thus far contrasts with a GOP field that is light on such experience yet crawling over each other to flex their muscular visions of American power. With the economy under President Obama continuing its tepid recovery, an early May NBC News/WSJ poll found that twice as many Republicans as Democrats (27 percent vs. 13 percent) view terrorism and national security as the most important issues in the 2016 election.
It’s a difficult balance for Clinton to strike. As she positioned herself for the 2016 campaign, her presidential-rite-of-passage memoir, Hard Choices, focused almost entirely on her globe-trotting diplomatic endeavors as her 2008 rival’s secretary of state. Since stepping down from Obama’s cabinet, Clinton has continued this work through the Clinton Foundation, but the perception of Clinton’s trustworthiness has suffered in recent polls after revelations about foreign donations to the foundation and that she used a private server for emails during her time at the State Department. (Campaign manager Mook defended the foundation’s work against what he characterized as partisan attacks. “They have literally saved millions of lives … they are an incredible force for good in this world and we’re not gonna let the Republicans tear that down,” he said.)
Add to that a spate of foreign policy crises that have drawn criticism of the Obama administration national-security strategy she helped craft. The GOP’s charge that the president lacks a solid foreign-policy vision was not helped by his Monday concession that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for helping Iraq beat back ISIS.
But she remains the presumptive Democratic nominee, even as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has shown a surprising ability to turn out crowds on the campaign trail. Sanders will likely pull her left. He points out he voted against the Iraq War in Congress in 2002. (Hillary’s vote for the invasion beleaguered her 2008 campaign.)
Clinton aides emphasize there are more than 500 days to go before November 2016. “I think you’ll hear her talk about [national security and foreign policy] tomorrow and throughout the campaign,” Mook told Defense One on Friday.
As the Republican field narrows, GOP rivals are likely to turn up the heat on Clinton, pressuring her to defend her foreign policy record. Some are starting early. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. said in his campaign kickoff speech in June, “I have got one simple message: I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate in this race. That includes you, Hillary.”
Graham is the only 2016 rival who can reasonably make such a declaration. Others are adopting a strategy more like freshman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who serves on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees and is enjoying top spots in the polls after years of positioning himself as commander in chief material. Rubio plays up his own youth in asserting that Clinton and her policies are “yesterday.”
Clinton directly took on this dig, invoking the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” and implying that the Republican field, lacking new ideas, is resorting to hawkish fearmongering. “I stood up to adversaries like Putin and reinforced allies like Israel. I was in the situation room the day we got bin Laden,” she said to loud cheers. “But I know we have to be smart as well as strong … Meeting today’s global challenges requires every element of America’s power.”
Ultimately, she struck an optimistic note. “There are a lot of trouble spots in the world, but there’s a lot of good news out there too,” she said.
Clinton, who spoke two days before former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to officially enter the race, didn’t spare the country’s other leading political family dynasty in her speech. They “borrowed money from other countries to pay for two wars,” she said. Bush has tried to distance himself from the unpopular foreign policy record of his brother, former President George W. Bush, insisting, “I’m my own man.” Yet he has surrounded himself with his family’s neocon advisors and sought to keep up with the hawkish rhetoric of his GOP rivals. For a week, Bush fumbled to answer whether he would’ve also invaded Iraq, though he managed to complete a European tour to burnish his credentials this week without any real stumbles.
Last month in Iowa, Clinton didn’t hesitate answering the question that tripped up Bush — and a number of GOP candidates.
“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple … what we now see is a very different and very dangerous situation,” Clinton said of her Iraq vote. “The United States is doing what it can, but ultimately this has to be a struggle that the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people are determined to win for themselves…We can provide support, but they’re going to have to do it.”