Politics
Analysis

Torture or steadiness? Terrorism again collides with 2016 campaign

Terrorism roared into the presidential campaign again on Tuesday, dividing it familiarly: Donald Trump played to fear, a trailing Republican candidate tried to out-Trump Trump, and the rest of the field offered proposals that were sober and yet unlikely to make Americans feel safe as chaos played out on their television screens.

If past terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino offer any guide, Trump and Hillary Clinton will benefit from the assault in Brussels, to the detriment of challengers whose path to success narrowed further with Tuesday’s primary results. Their stances Tuesday outlined the general-election battle to come.

Trump won Tuesday’s Republican primary in Arizona largely due to his anti-immigration positions — both his tough stance against those in the country illegally, mostly from Mexico, and his vow to ban Muslims from entering the country.

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The horror in Belgium gave him an opportunity to suggest, in several television interviews, that he had been prescient about the threat of terrorism and to press again the idea that he alone could provide the strength the nation needs to fight it abroad and at home. He once more advocated the use of tactics that the U.S. government considers to be torture.

Clinton succeeded in Arizona, as she has in other states, by arguing that she has the experience to step into the role of commander in chief while pushing liberal domestic policies. She, too, had an opportunity Tuesday to highlight her time on the world stage — and she quickly scheduled a Wednesday speech on Islamic State and counter-terrorism.

The attacks in Brussels seemed most likely to hurt Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican John Kasich. For both men, the rise of foreign policy as a voter concern is risky.

Foreign policy has been a weak point for Sanders; his foreign policy speech Monday focused mostly on Israel, not how to deal with Islamic State. Throughout the campaign, his passion has been reserved for domestic proposals. His biggest foreign policy discussion has involved Clinton’s 2002 vote giving President George W. Bush the authority to wage war in Iraq.

Kasich, the Ohio governor, is fighting for public attention as he pushes his late challenge to Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; the overwhelming coverage of explosions in the Belgian capital meant less focus on the presidential campaign overall, and Kasich in particular.

He, too, has emphasized his domestic credentials both in Ohio and, earlier, as a member of Congress. On treatment of immigrants and Muslims, he also has presented a more moderate face than Trump or Cruz.

The Texas senator, the Republican closest to Trump in delegates, worked Tuesday to hone a Trump-like message. He asserted in a statement that it was time to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized” — a controversial path that national security officials describe as counterproductive to their goal of winning the cooperation of Muslim communities.

A statement put out by his campaign said that "political correctness" had caused America to "surrender" to the enemy — language that mimics Trump’s regular broadsides.

The impact of the terrorist attacks on the general election is highly unpredictable at this point, dependent in part on whether more occur and how, by November, voters judge President Obama’s handling of the threat. While Clinton has been more statesman-like in her response to the attacks so far, she risks some damage from her close association with the president if the issue becomes a telling one in the general election.

Diving swiftly into a foreign policy debate on the heels of a terrorist attack can be politically risky, as 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney found with scorching criticism of his early comments on the Benghazi attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others. But there was little hesitation Tuesday.

Clinton seemed to have the general election in mind, offering remarks that were measured in tone. The comments by Trump and Cruz, aired in multiple interviews, may have been meant to rouse Republican voters, but their vehemence suggested that the outlines of the general-election debate were also being laid.

Trump has benefited politically from terrorist attacks; his calls for banning Muslims from entering the country and his negative characterizations of those in the country illegally has dovetailed with voter concerns about terrorism that ran high before the Paris and San Bernardino attacks late last year and have only escalated since. And as fear has risen, voters have gravitated not to the candidate with the most foreign policy experience but to the one who talked the toughest.

Trump made clear Tuesday he has not abandoned that approach. Throughout the day, he cast the United States as foolhardy for refusing to torture captured terrorists. In one interview, with “Fox and Friends,” he said that immigrants with ISIS-generated passports were "coming into our country, they’re coming in by the thousands."

"Look, I think we have to change our law on the waterboarding thing," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, referring to one tactic the U.S. has deemed torture. "We have to change our laws and we have to be able to fight on an almost equal basis."

When Blitzer pointed out that one alleged terrorist arrested last week was cooperating with Belgian authorities, Trump replied that "he may be talking, but he’ll talk a lot faster with the torture."

In keeping with much of his campaign, what Trump forwarded Tuesday was less specific proposals than chest-pounding.

"We are going to be very strong. We are going to be very vigilant and we’re going to be very tough," he said during an interview on NBC’s "Today" show. "We’re not going to allow this to happen to our country. If it does happen, we’re going to find the people that did it and they’re going to suffer greatly."

Clinton, who issued a statement Tuesday calling for "resolve" and for the U.S. to stand with allies in a united fight against terrorists, cast the Republican front-runner as fear-mongering.

"Yes, there are people who are understandably worried and scared. Absolutely," she said in an interview with MSNBC. "And is it the responsibility of leaders to help people understand what can be done to allay their fears? Yes. I don’t think we want to be inciting more fears. I don’t think we want to be playing to people’s concerns so that we turn against one another.

"I think we have to have a slow, steady, smart, strong response and we don’t need to be panicking... That’s what I’ve been advocating. That’s what I believe I am best equipped to do."

She returned to that theme in a speech Tuesday night in Seattle, where she said the next commander in chief must "provide leadership that is strong, smart and above all steady."

"The last thing we need, my friends, are leaders that incite more fear," she said. "It will not keep us safe."

The nomination battles will go on for two more months, through the final big primaries in June. The debate over how to keep the country safe will endure much longer, through the general election in November and beyond.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker . For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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