How Will the Brussels Attacks Affect the Presidential Race?

It remains to be seen, but we did get a glimpse Tuesday of what a general election match-up between Trump and Clinton would look like

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton appealed to voters Tuesday regarding how they would respond to terrorist attacks like those in Brussels. Credit: Matt Rourke/AP

As with everything else that will happen around the world in the next seven-and-a-half months, many people are wondering how Tuesday morning's terrorist attacks in Brussels will affect the U.S. presidential election.

That question probably won't be settled anytime soon. We'll likely still be debating the impact or non-impact months from now, just as we're still wondering how last year's attacks in Paris shaped the primary race: "They didn't," argues a reporter pointing to the fact that the GOP candidates continued on their polling trajectories unchanged. "Oh didn't they?" counters another, offering the fact that the two candidates viewed as toughest on terrorism emerged as their parties' presumptive nominees.

One thing Tuesday's events, and the media scrum that followed, made abundantly clear was the fact that this race really is down to just two candidates: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Before the dust had a chance to settle after the tragic bombings, the Republican and Democratic frontrunners in the race were already on television, pitching their respective plans to combat ISIS, providing the clearest preview yet of what a general election match-up would look like.

Trump called in to Fox & Friends, Good Morning America and The Today Show Tuesday morning. In each phone interview, he argued that the attacks in Brussels further demonstrate the need to enact policy goals he's outlined: building a wall along the Mexican border, barring Muslims from entering the country indefinitely, and using torture to root out terrorist plots.

"Frankly, waterboarding, if it was up to me, and if we change the laws or have the laws, waterboarding would be fine," Trump told The Today Show. "We work within laws — they don't work within laws. They have no laws. The waterboarding would be fine and if they could expand the laws I would do a lot more than waterboarding."

Trump's swift dominance of the airwaves was nothing new for the celebrity real-estate mogul. Throughout his campaign, Trump has proved adept at exploiting networks' insatiable hunger for newsy, relevant soundbites. The liberal watchdog Media Matters recently found Trump has made a total of 63 call-in appearances on various TV news programs since January 2015; Clinton, by contrast, has called in just 17 times. (The disparity between Trump's media footprint and the other candidates' caused MSNBC host Chuck Todd to declare last week he would no longer allow Trump to phone in to appearances on Meet the Press.)

Though Clinton has been an infrequent guest on the morning-talk-show circuit, she surfaced Tuesday to offer a sharp rebuke to Trump's bombast in the wake of the attacks. The former secretary of State called in to Good Morning America shortly after Trump, and systematically dismantled his policies point by point.

Clinton began by emphasizing that attacks like the one in Brussels show the importance of America's involvement in NATO. (Hours before the terrorist attacks, Trump told CNN host Wolf Blitzer that the U.S. should rethink the alliance because it's too costly.)

"This is a horrific attack, right in the heart of Europe, and it shows why we need to be in solidarity with our European allies and why NATO is still indispensable to our efforts to protect our country and our friends'," Clinton said. "We can't overstate how important it is to intensify the cooperation and I have been laying out a three track strategy against ISIS to increase the pressure in the region and to dismantle their network of funding and arms and recruiting and propaganda, and to strengthen our defenses at home."

Next, she took specific aim at Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Terrorists, she said, by their very nature, are trying to scare Americans and Europeans and turn them against each other. "We can't let them succeed in that, so we've got to strengthen our resolve, to stand together within our own country, rather than dividing our own country, we need to be united — and that's where American Muslims come in. They are among the first lines of defense that we have in the United States to find out what's happening, to have an alert about somebody that is acting suspiciously," she said.

She went on to explain why using waterboarding and other means of torture, as Trump suggested, would not just fail to foil terrorist plots, but actually encourage them. "Our best and bravest intel and military leaders will tell you: Torture is not effective. It puts soldiers, and increasingly our own civilians, in danger. I do believe we have to give our law enforcement and intelligence professionals all the tools they need to do the job to keep Americans safe, but I don't think they need to resort to torture. That's like an open recruitment poster for more terrorists, and it's wrong, and it doesn't work."

The three remaining candidates released statements as well. "Radical Islam is at war with us," said Ted Cruz; "We and our allies must rededicate ourselves to these values of freedom and human rights," said John Kasich; "We stand with our European allies to offer any necessary assistance in these difficult times," said Bernie Sanders. None of them, though, offered what the voters seem to want: Donald Trump's desire for blunt force, or the measured rebuttal from Hillary Clinton.