Donald Trump extolled the Russian president as a better leader than Barack Obama while Hillary Clinton defended her decades of experience in a sequential study in contrasts – the first time American voters have had the chance to closely compare the two people vying for the presidency on the same stage dealing with the same subjects.
The two rivals appeared Thursday evening, one after the other, on board the Intrepid, the battle-scarred World War Two-era aircraft carrier that is only slightly older than either of the presidential nominees.
Facing an audience of military veterans, Mr. Trump, 70, pitched himself as a tough, clear-eyed commander-in-chief who would vanquish Islamic State, improve relations with Russia and quickly restore America's greatness. As always, the billionaire property magnate was long on sweeping promises and short on specifics. In striking contrast, Ms. Clinton, 68, a former secretary of state, senator and first lady, reeled off detailed and specific policies with the confidence of a seasoned foreign policy practitioner, but seemed easily irked by questions about lapses in her past performance, especially her use of an e-mail server in the basement of her Chappaqua, New York, mansion to handle classified messages.
Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, was effusive in his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the tough former KGB agent who has annexed Crimea, invaded Ukraine and backs Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who continues to ruthlessly gas his own people.
Putin has "been a leader, far more than our President has been a leader," Mr. Trump said, adding the Russian president has an 82-per cent approval rating. Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin are something of a mutual admiration society and have long exchanged praise.
"If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him … when he calls me brilliant, I think I'll take the compliment, okay?" Mr. Trump said Wednesday evening. While he added that Mr. Putin's authoritarian style was in "a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system," Mr. Trump made clear that, once in the White House, he would work well with the Russian leader. "If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing," Mr. Trump said.
Ms. Clinton, the Democratic nominee, was first to face the 30-minute grilling from the audience of three generations of veterans, including many who had served in the Iraq war – a war she now says she was wrong to support.
"I think that the decision to go to war in Iraq was a mistake and I have said that my voting to give president Bush that authority was, from my perspective, my mistake," Ms. Clinton admitted. But she also tried, as she does routinely, to pin the same mistake on Mr. Trump claiming: "My opponent was for the war in Iraq. He says he wasn't; you can go back and look at the record. He supported it."
As always, Mr. Trump flatly denied he ever – even in 2003 – supported the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.
That stark difference in style – especially on issues of personal integrity and credibility – serves as a harbinger for what Americans can expect when the two face each other for the first time in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.
Then the contrast between Mr. Trump's sweeping and often draconian vows and Ms. Clinton's intense, often wonkish command of history and policy, will produce an extraordinary clash of personalities and visions.
For instance, Mr. Trump continued to blame Mr. Obama, or at least the decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, for creating the conditions that spawned Islamic State.
Mr. Trump said he would have ordered Iraq's oil reserves – among the world's largest – to be removed. "If we're going to get out, take the oil," adding: "If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn't have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil," referring to Islamic State by an earlier acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
While Mr. Trump says he will defeat Islamic State within weeks and proudly refuses to reveal how – saying he won't telegraph his plans to the enemy – Ms. Clinton laid out a very specific and detailed approach to what she called "my highest counterterrorism goal."
"We've got to do it with air power. We've got to do it with much more support for the Arabs and the Kurds, who will fight on the ground against ISIS. We have to squeeze them by continuing to support the Iraqi military. They've taken back Ramadi, Fallujah. They've got to hold them. They've got to now get into Mosul."
But she also pledged: "We are not putting ground troops into Iraq ever again. And we're not putting ground troops into Syria. We're going to defeat ISIS without committing American ground troops."
That broad continuation of current policy – on Islamic State, on Syria, on Iran, on relations with China and Russia – reflects Ms. Clinton's self-assessment. She would make a better president than Mr. Trump, she says, because of her "steadiness. An absolute rock steadiness, mixed with strength to be able to make the hard decisions."
Ms. Clinton said she possesses "the unique experience of watching and working with several presidents … and when you're sitting in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions …. what you want in a president, a commander-in-chief, is someone who listens, who evaluates what is being told to him or her, who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented."
That's the same argument she used, unsuccessfully, against Mr. Obama eight years ago when she cast her African-American rival, a then-senator from Illinois, as too inexperienced to answer the red phone when it rang in the middle of the night.
Now it is Mr. Trump billing himself as the right man for those tired of failed policies who want a change, not a third term with a Democratic president in the White House.
"I have no faith in Hillary Clinton or the leadership. You look at what's happened. And, you know, when she comes in and starts saying, 'Oh, I would have done this, I would have' – she's been there for 30 years. I mean, we need change, we have to have it, and we have to have it fast."
Mr. Trump, who has never won an election and never held public office, argues that his business experience, his common sense and his track record of correctly predicting the outcome of policy options makes him more than ready to be commander-in-chief of the world's sole remaining superpower.
"The main thing is I have great judgment," he said. "I have good judgment. I know what's going on. I've called so many of the shots."
With polls showing the race tightening, with Ms. Clinton's midsummer lead largely gone and the two running neck-and-neck, the two presidential debates may prove defining moments.
"Look. I have a very substantial chance of winning," Mr. Trump said. "Make America great again. We're going to make America great again. I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don't want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is."
In Ms. Clinton's view – one echoed even by many prominent Republican foreign policy experts – that sort of glib Trumpian rhetoric isn't just vague, it's dangerous.
But it's also a simple, clarion call – compelling because of its simplicity even as Mr. Trump's adversaries condemn it for failing to grasp the complexities of a dangerous, dynamic, post-Cold War world in the 21st century.
When Ms. Clinton was asked how she – if elected president – would guarantee ordinary Americans they would be safer with her as commander-in-chief, the message was very different, more nuanced and far less memorable.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that that's the result. I'm not going to, you know, promise something that I think most thinking Americans know is going to be a huge challenge, and here's why. We've got to have an intelligence surge. We've got to get a lot more co-operation out of Europe, out of the Middle East. We have to do a better job of not only collecting and analyzing the intelligence we do have, but distributing it much more quickly down the ladder to state and local law enforcement. We also have to do a better job combatting ISIS online, where they recruit, where they radicalize. And I don't think we're doing as much as we can."