Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talk during an interview by PBS' Charlie Rose in 2011.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talk during an interview by PBS' Charlie Rose in 2011. Alex Brandon/AP file photo

Why Is Hillary Clinton Courting Republican Foreign-Policy Heavyweights?

National security has become a cornerstone of the case against Donald Trump—and high-profile support matters.

Of all the arguments Hillary Clinton has made against Donald Trump, the charge that he cannot be trusted with America’s nuclear codes may prove most memorable. Invoking the threat of nuclear warfare frames the race in the starkest possible terms. But as the Clinton campaign courts Republicans as it makes its national-security case, will it alienate progressive Democrats along the way?

On Monday, Politico noted that Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and George Shultz—former secretaries of state who served under Republican administrations—have not yet “come out for or against Trump.” According to the report, “a person close to Clinton said her team has sent out feelers to the GOP elders,” though “Clinton campaign aides did not respond when asked if they had solicited endorsements or tried to persuade the elders to speak out against Trump.” 

Meanwhile, prominent members of the Republican foreign policy establishment are speaking out against Trump in droves. The New York Times published a letter on Monday signed by a long list of senior Republican national-security officials, including former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden. The letter warns that Trump “would be a dangerous President,” and would “risk our country’s national security and well-being.”

The more high-profile Republicans repudiate Trump, the weaker he looks as a general-election candidate. But in the race to win over independent and Republican voters, an endorsement from someone with as much name recognition as Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state to Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, would be even more powerful.

"The messenger matters," said Elizabeth Saunders, a political science professor at George Washington University. "In general it's surprising to see high-profile Republicans cross the aisle to endorse a Democrat, and the more prominent the person making an endorsement, the more powerful the effect."​ If Kissinger, Rice, Baker or Shultz endorse​d​ Clinton, that would be "a big deal," Saunders noted,​ since it would be "a Republican at the very highest and most recognized level, a former Secretary of State, crossing the aisle to endorse."

There are plenty of reasons Republican foreign-policy experts might prefer Clinton to Trump. As a former secretary of state, Clinton has far more foreign-policy experience. On top of that, Trump has broken with Republican consensus by threatening to upend U.S. participation in NATO and rip up international trade deals. His presidency could dramatically alter the way America engages with the rest of the world. That unconventional stand creates an opportunity for Clinton.

“Trump represents a strong break with foreign policy tradition, and I think Secretary Clinton is trying to capitalize on that,” said Nora Bensahel, a distinguished scholar in residence at American University’s School of International Service. “She’s trying to appeal to Independents and Republicans who are on the fence about Trump and have questions about what his judgment as commander-in-chief would look like.”

Clinton has already won outright endorsements from some prominent members of the Republican foreign-policy establishment. Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to Ford and George H.W. Bush, and Richard Armitage, a deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, have publicly declared they plan to support Clinton over Trump. The Clinton campaign recently put out an ad that features conservatives questioning Trump’s ability to serve as commander-in-chief.

The focus on national-security risks alienating progressive voters wary of Clinton’s reputation as a foreign-policy hawk more likely to support military intervention abroad than President Obama and other Democrats. Chants of “No more war!” rung out inside the Wells Fargo Center when former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and retired General John Allen spoke in support of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention.

“Henry Kissinger is an architect of war,” said Winnie Wong, a co-founder of The People for Bernie Sanders. “That Hillary Clinton is purportedly courting an endorsement from him speaks volumes about her future foreign-policy plans for the United States. Progressives want peace. This is not peace.”

Dan Froomkin of The Intercept summed up hostility toward Kissinger in February. “Kissinger is reviled by many left-leaning observers of foreign policy,” he wrote, “They consider him an amoral egotist who enabled dictators, extended the Vietnam War, laid the path to the Khmer Rouge killing fields, stage-managed a genocide in East Timor, overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government in Chile, and encouraged Nixon to wiretap his political adversaries.”

Clinton’s foreign-policy record has haunted her in the past. During the 2008 election, Obama attacked Clinton for her support of the Iraq War, andemphasized his own opposition to the war during his ultimately successful primary campaign. Now, however, Clinton seems to believe an emphasis on national security will resonate with undecided voters, even if it doesn’t sit well with progressives.

Democrats are attempting to frame the election as less a contest of partisan ideology and more a choice between someone who is unfit to serve as commander-in-chief and a person who can be trusted to handle power responsibly. In their telling, a vote for Trump would be reckless, and dangerous. That argument could prove extremely persuasive, in part because it is succinct. But to work, it can’t just be voiced by Democrats.

The more endorsements Clinton wins from Republicans, or individuals who have served faithfully in Republican administrations, the stronger the case becomes. Ironically, the partisan affiliations of her endorsers help Clinton argue that the election is not about partisan politics at all. “When a bunch of Republicans are forced to admit he’s unfit to be commander-in-chief, it’s very difficult for all but the most rabid partisan to ignore it,” said Matt Bennett, senior vice president for public affairs at the center-left think-tank Third Way.

Another way of understanding why the Clinton campaign might court endorsements from GOP foreign-policy heavyweights is that there are plenty of indications that the Democratic base will rally behind Clinton in November. A Pew Research survey found that 90 percent of consistent Sanders supporters plan to support Clinton in the general election. That number could climb even higher as the election draws nearer.

The idea that Trump poses a unique threat is not confined to Republicans defecting to Clinton. It is a belief shared by many progressives. That leaves the Clinton campaign with leeway to court moderates and centrists. There may have been loud anti-war protest chants at the Democratic convention, but they were more often than not drowned out by cheers of “USA, USA!” That’s not to say that the Clinton campaign is incapable of alienating a critical mass of progressive voters. It’s just that in a year when Trump could win the White House, it would take far more effort to do so.