Do Americans still want to be reassured after a traumatic event, or do they want to be inflamed? Hillary Clinton is staking her presidential candidacy on the former.
Without mentioning Donald Trump’s name once, Clinton drew unmistakable distinctions with her Republican opponent on style and substance as she called for unity and gun policy reforms. She delivered the speech after a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, popular with the LGBTQ community killed 49 and injured scores more. It was the worst terror attack since 9/11.
“Today is not a day for politics,” Clinton said in Cleveland during her first major speech since winning the Democratic presidential nomination.
Clinton devoted some time to policy, promising to defeat the so-called Islamic State and to make combating “lone wolf” terrorism a top priority of her prospective administration. She also renewed a call to ban assault weapons, saying “weapons of war have no place on our streets.”
But primarily, Clinton's speech was an appeal to patriotism and solidarity at time when Trump has used terror attacks to stoke the conservative base’s anger against Muslims and politically correct politicians.
"This is a moment when all Americans need to stand together,” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said.
While acknowledging the tragedy of the shooting, Clinton sought to extract some humanity from the cruelty by recognizing the acts of heroism and altruism carried out by victims, first-responders, and bystanders.
And she connected the struggle against violent intolerance to that of gay rights, saying there is “no better rebuke to the terrorists and all those who hate” then rallying around the LGBT community.
It was Clinton’s test drive as empathizer-in-chief — the role presidents must play after tragedy strikes, and one that Trump has shown little interest in embracing.
“As a mother, I can't imagine what those mothers are going through,” she said. "No matter how many times we endure attacks like this, the horror never fades.”
While Clinton gave the type of speech presidents and presidential candidates have been expected to deliver for decades amid crises, Trump took the opposite approach. He started the day by celebrating his own foresight in predicting the attack and continued it by ruthlessly criticizing Clinton in almost conspiratorial tones.
Speaking just moments after Clinton concluded her speech on Monday, Trump suggested that the former secretary of state has a secret plan to take away Americans' guns so they will be vulnerable to violent extremists.
“Her plan is to disarm law-abiding Americans, abolishing the Second Amendment, and leaving only the bad guys and terrorists with guns. She wants to take away Americans’ guns, then admit the very people who want to slaughter us,” Trump said.
Democrats hope the contrast will speak for itself as Americans consider who they want to be their next commander-in-chief.
“This will make her look very big and him look very small,” said Tommy Vietor, Obama’s former national security spokesman. “Americans don't want to hear their leaders flailing and attacking each other at a time like this.
But while she never mentioned Trump, Clinton’s speech was hardly apolitical. Her thesis was a clear refutation Trump’s worldview from start to finish, in ways large and small.
Clinton took hardly veiled jabs at Trump’s Muslim ban, which she called “inflammatory” and “anti-Muslim,” saying it would be counter-productive by alienating Islamic allies.
And Clinton took on his polarization in more subtle ways as well, including across-the-aisle praise for George Voinovich, a Republican former senator from Ohio who died Sunday, and George W. Bush’s handling of the September 11 attacks.
“We are not a land of winners and losers,” Clinton said, invoking one of Trump’s favorite dichotomies.
And Clinton, who was serving as a New York senator on Sept. 11, recalled the sense of unity that followed those attacks. “It is time to get back to those days, the spirit of 9/12,” Clinton added.
But even Democrats worry that Trump has succeeded in breaking the mold, making it impossible to predict how the public will respond to this latest attack. Maybe they’re more eager to be enraged than calmed?
After all, Trump’s Republican opponents thought the San Bernardino and Paris attacks in December would help end Republican primary voters’ infatuation with Trump when they realized they needed a serious leader at the help.
That obviously didn’t happen. Cooler heads, in the end, did not prevail.
Americans’ view on the government’s handling of terrorism hit its lowest point since the 9/11 attack in December. Just 46 percent of Americans said they had a positive or a very positive view of the government’s handling of terror, according to Pew, down 26 percentage points from the previous time they asked the question.
“There's definitely been a decline over time, and particularly in recent years,” said Jocelyn Kiley, the associate director of research at Pew. “It largely was in the '70s throughout the Bush administration and much of the Obama administration.”