In a script flipped from previous elections, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton styled herself as the candidate defending American exceptionalism, international alliances and the military in a speech to thousands of veterans Wednesday.
Speaking here at the American Legion National Convention, Clinton highlighted her personal and professional military bona fides, describing her upbringing as the daughter of a Navy chief petty officer and invoking her role as an adviser in the May 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden.
“I was deeply honored to be part of that small group advising the president,” she said. “I brought to those discussions my experience as a senator from New York on 9/11 and my commitment to do whatever I could in whatever role I had to bring bin Laden to justice.”
She recalled watching the SEALs adapt and carry on with the mission as one of the Black Hawk helicopters clipped the wall of bin Laden’s compound and was disabled.
“I was holding my breath for the entire operation,” she said.
Although the SEALs were racing against the clock to destroy the damaged chopper and depart after taking out bin Laden, Clinton said, they took time to move women and children — bin Laden’s family members — to safety.
“That is what honor looks like,” she said. “Maybe the soldiers of other nations wouldn’t have bothered. Or maybe the’d have taken revenge on those family members of terrorists. But that is not who we are. And anyone who doesn’t understand that, doesn’t understand what makes our nation great.”
The statement was one of many pointed rebukes to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is set to address the convention on Thursday.
Last December, Trump said on a Fox News talk show that U.S. leaders had to “take out [the] families” of terrorists to be effective against them. He later would walk the remark back.
Clinton also took Trump to task for comments disparaging Gold Star father Khizr Khan, who spoke in Clinton’s support at the Democratic National Convention in July, and former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain, whose heroism Trump has questioned, saying in 2015: “I like people who weren’t captured.”
“I will never disrespect Gold Star families or prisoners of war,” Clinton said. “To insult them is just so wrong, and it says a lot about the person doing the insulting.”
Clinton struck a centrist note, acknowledging she spoke to an audience that tended to lean conservative. And she emphasized her commitment to the ideas of American exceptionalism and military strength.
She called her father, Navy veteran Hugh Rodham, a “rock-ribbed” Republican with whom she had never agreed on politics but had learned to converse with civilly.
“I believe we are still Lincoln’s last best hope of Earth … Still Reagan’s shining city on a hill,” she said. “Part of what makes America an exceptional nation is that we are also an indispensable nation. In fact, we are the indispensable nation. My friends, we are so lucky to be American when so many people want to be Americans too.”
She promised to send troops into harm’s way only as a last resort — a statement that drew applause from the convention — and promised to support and develop U.S. alliances, saying they were unmatched by those of competing global powers Russia and China.
“You don’t build a coalition by insulting our friends and acting like a loose cannon,” she said, subtly rebuking Trump, who has been critical of U.S. allies and NATO for not paying their share of defense costs. “You do it by putting in the slow, hard work of building relationships.”
On veterans’ issues, Clinton emphasized her support for reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, rather than privatizing the system, and pledged to fight to end the national “epidemic” of veterans’ suicide.
Clinton said she would support expanded tax credits for businesses that hire veterans and would promote policies that allow veterans to get credit for military job skills as they transition into the civilian workforce.
She also promised a crackdown on for-profit schools and organizations that prey on veterans and military families. “They should be ashamed of themselves, and we’re going to hold them accountable,” she said.
Clinton touted the endorsements she has received from retired military leaders and Republican national security experts, and promised to cross the aisle to work out a sustainable defense budget plan, denouncing the sequestration cuts, enacted through the bipartisan Budget Control Act, that placed arbitrary caps on defense spending.
“The last thing we need is a president who brings more name-calling and temper tantrums to Washington,” she said.