Hillary Clinton's campaign apparently workshopped the idea of trying to tag Donald Trump with the nickname "Dangerous Donald." It was a bit of a lame idea. But in her foreign policy speech this afternoon, Clinton captured the essence of that critique well — and delivered her best version yet of an argument that we're going to hear more and more of as she puts the primary against Bernie Sanders behind her and looks ahead to the general election.
The essence of the argument is simple. You may not agree with everything she says or everything she's done or will do, but you can at least be sure that a Clinton presidency won't lead to some enormous unforeseen cataclysm. With Trump, there's no such guarantee.
"There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf course deal," she said. "But it doesn’t work like that in world affairs. Just like being interviewed on the same episode of 60 Minutes as Putin is not the same as actually dealing with Putin."
Bottom line: "The stakes in global statecraft are infinitely higher and more complex than in the world of luxury hotels."
Clinton on Trump's foreign policy
Clinton is pitching a 70-30 argument
Over the course of the past year, Clinton has been talking primarily to Democratic Party primary voters. This argument — and this speech in general — is not one that will be especially appealing to them.
What she's offering instead is an argument aimed at a much broader audience. It's an argument that acknowledges, implicitly, that there are tens of millions of right-of-center Americans who've never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate but didn't support Trump in the primary. Clinton is pitching an argument aimed at those people — one designed to offer little ideological or policy content in hopes of appealing to 70 percent of the population rather than 51 percent.
It's essentially the argument that Business Insider's Josh Barro made early this week — Trump carries too much tail risk:
It's clear he doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. So we can't be certain which of these things he would do. But we can be certain that he's capable of doing any or all of them. Letting ISIS run wild. Launching a nuclear attack. Starting a ground war. These are all distinct possibilities with Donald Trump in charge.
In other words, ask yourself: What's the worst that could happen? Conservative-minded people aren't going to be thrilled with a Clinton presidency, but they've already lived through eight years of Bill Clinton and eight years of Barack Obama. The country is still standing. With Trump, by contrast, we really have no idea what we're going to get.
Donald Trump's ideas, Clinton said, are "dangerously incoherent"; indeed, "they're not ideas at all." She calls him "temperamentally unfit" and raised the specter of nuclear war.
Risk in real estate versus statecraft
The luxury hotel line is a joke, but it carries a serious point related to the tail risk argument.
In real estate development, taking on risk is the only way to make money. You finance a project with borrowed money, and you try to silo each one as its own LLC. That way, if a given project fails, you declare bankruptcy and reorganize.
Most people, frankly, don't have the appetite for risk and the nerves of steel that it takes to make it in this game. That's why most people don't invest in highly illiquid real estate projects.
But at the end of the day, even though real estate is a game for risk takers, it's also a game where the downside risk is very limited. At the absolute worst, you can't repay your debts and it becomes a bit harder to get a loan the next time.
Running a country isn't like that. If you make a big mistake, you can't just go to court and have the slate wiped clean. A casino bankruptcy hurts the bottom line of a few banks. A sovereign default of the United States — something Trump has floated — would destroy the global economy.
An argument that will disappoint liberals
This is the best argument to use if Clinton wants to persuade right-of-center voters to cross the aisle and vote for her, stay home, or take a look at Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party.
But it's not an argument that's going to warm the hearts of liberals. Pursuing the argument that Trump is simply too risky to serve as president requires Clinton to try to denude the campaign of as much ideological content as possible. Any talk from her side about the big issues and ideas in politics necessarily reminds people that for any given set of big issues and ideas, not everyone is going to agree. By contrast, pretty much anyone can be open to the basic idea that Trump is a loose cannon who doesn't know much about foreign policy.
Some progressives fear that this kind of campaign means Clinton won't build a mandate for progressive policy if she wins the election.
The reality, however, is that the biggest objective determinant of how a Clinton administration governs is what happens in November's congressional elections. Clinton is aiming for a landslide, and if she can deliver one, it will set the stage for a lot of progressive policy — whether or not she talks about it on the campaign trail.