Hillary Clinton’s Faustian dilemma

Hillary Clinton’s Faustian dilemma

An interview in the influential magazine, The Atlantic, has given some influential people pause about getting on board the Hillary Clinton Express, en route to the presidency in 2016. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

As far as deck-clearing interviews go, former Secretary of State, former First Lady, former senator and would-be president Hillary Clinton’s recent lengthy interview in The Atlantic does not seem to have been her finest hour. Actually, Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem as a potential presidential candidate is not introducing herself to the electorate. Rather, after decades in the public eye, there are few if any contemporary American politicians who are better known than she is already. In fact, her real problem is, rather than becoming better known (and with the accompanying idea: To know her is to love her); Hillary Clinton’s challenge is that many already see her as a profoundly divisive figure. This has been despite her obvious talents, skills and commitment to public service.

That image goes far back in time – right when she was an outspoken student, giving a graduation address at her university that made national headlines. Then, later when she became a high-profile governor’s wife in Arkansas. A few years later, in her efforts to help her husband achieve the White House in 1992, on a TV interview, she curtly dismissed the idea she should stay home and “bake cookies” – rather than take on some real public policy tasks (managing to infuriate a fair number of stay-at-home moms apparently). Once in the White House, she led the doomed effort to produce a broad reform of the national health care system; then “stood by her man” against that “vast right-wing conspiracy” trying to bring down the Clinton administration. Her comment also became an integral part of the story of the president’s infidelity with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, and then the acrimony over a failed impeachment effort led by a couple of Republican congressmen with equally flawed judgment about their own private moments.

As she ran for the Senate from New York, she had to endure complaints she was some kind of carpetbagger who had sought an open senatorial chair in a state that was not hers, simply because her local popularity in New York virtually guaranteed a victory for her against other local politicos. While her solid performance as a senator allayed the concerns of many, her run for the presidency in 2008, and an increasingly jagged performance – campaign commercials that rankled with a not-so-subliminal message that Barack Obama was less deserving of the main prize than a woman would be for breaking the glass ceiling, a public bit of crying, and an increasingly harsh tone in many of her public speeches – left even her supporters feeling the race had been too much to bear.

Barack Obama’s surprise appointment of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state gave her the opportunity to put a rich patina of “statesmanship” onto her resume, thereby making her the most deeply experienced possible potential candidate in the Democratic Party, come 2016 (except, of course, VP Joe Biden – ed). By the time she had concluded her time in the cabinet, with the possible exception of the nagging Benghazi business,  she left office in relatively good nick – and with a reasonable resume enhancement to boot. Of course, Obama foreign policy direction has been a largely White House-driven exercise, so Clinton had largely been left with pointing to her air mileage (considerable) and the sharply better tone with many allies and not a few antagonists than had been true during the Bush administration as accomplishments.

Nevertheless, as Hillary Clinton began to contemplate that one last time around the track of presidential aspirations, she did what so many others before her have done, she finished her memoirs and embarked on a national book tour to punt it. As part of her book tour, media appearances on radio and television were a “must do.” While many of those went well enough for her and for her book, a few had a surprisingly testy tone that rather undercut the narrative of experience, competence and savvy she was setting out. For example, there was her turn on Terry Gross’ popular “Fresh Air” program on the NPR non-commercial radio network, an interview where Clinton proved to be visibly testy over Gross’ questioning of her about Clinton’s evolving views on same-sex marriage.

Concurrently, while foreign policy had been a persistent strong suit for the Obama administration throughout his first term of office (certainly in contrast to his predecessor’s results), according to virtually every public opinion poll, by the second term, that edge has slipped badly. These surveys have given results that have placed trust in the president’s ability in foreign affairs as being little different than on domestic issues.  Part of this is what often happens with a presidential second term, but part of it was a function of presidential responses to events on the ground around the world – from strife in Ukraine, the various conflicts in Middle East and Afghanistan, and relations with an increasingly surging China. The White House’s response to the horrendous civil war in Syria, especially, has made it hard for numbers of would-be voters to feel the Obama administration has managed events as opposed to being ridden by them.

As a result, Clinton’s proto-campaign and the would-be candidate herself have been confronted by a difficult choice.  On the one hand, she could continue to run (or position herself as a putative candidate) as a loyal (former) member of the Obama team – a team that faced the tough choices and made hard, real politick choices in a dangerous world. Or, alternatively, she could begin positioning herself as a loyal Democrat, but one who had some important differences with the team she had served in during Obama’s first term.

This dilemma is made that much harder by the electoral logic of American politics that says it is very hard for a loyal subordinate with a significant political following of their own to run for the presidency after two terms by an incumbent from the same party. This has been the case if for no other reason that the problems and stumbles inevitably build up sufficiently over eight years so that the population becomes increasingly itchy to give the other team a chance. In modern times, since World War I, save for the unique circumstances of that five-term run during the Great Depression/World War II/Cold War period with Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman or the three terms of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush at the end of the Cold War, it has been impossible to pass along the presidency after two terms to yet another politician in the same party.

As a result of these pressures and temptations, it seems it became Hillary Clinton’s choice to declare a kind of muted, low-key independence from the increasingly problematic Obama legacy, as 2016 comes nearer. And so, Hillary Clinton undertook to do just that in a recent lengthy interview published in The Atlantic, a very prestigious American magazine. Observing the resulting fallout from the interview, however, Maggie Haberman, writing in Politico, noted, “In the interview, Clinton dismissed the Obama administration’s self-described foreign policy principle of ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’ And while she also praised Obama several times, Clinton nonetheless called his decision not to assist Syrian rebels early on a ‘failure.’ ”

In particular, Clinton chose to set out her differences with the Obama administration on the handling of the Middle East’s many issues, and her approaches to the nations in that region – most especially Israel and Syria. In response to her interview, in a sharply worded, signed column in the New York Times (that paper had endorsed her in the 2008 Democratic Party race to become the nominee), Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor, wrote, “A few days ago, she cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s toughness in foreign affairs and said his “failure” in Syria had caused the current trouble in Iraq. Maureen Dowd did a masterful job this morning of summing up the controversy. I’ll just add a couple of thoughts. First, Mrs. Clinton did debate Mr. Obama on Syria. But in the end, she was part of the decision he made and she can’t wiggle out of that. (Just as she can’t wiggle out of her vote for the invasion of Iraq when she was in the Senate.) And the timing of her criticism was very strange, just before Mr. Obama started dropping bombs in Iraq. Her office said the interview had been long scheduled, but I find it hard to believe that Mrs. Clinton was not briefed on what was coming in Iraq, as a former secretary of state.” That’s pretty tough stuff.

Haberman went on to note, “She [Clinton] talked extensively about the situation in Gaza, aligning herself tightly with Israel, and spoke in tough tones about Iran’s nuclear program. When asked about Syria’s civil war, she reiterated her past position that the U.S. should have assisted the Syrian rebels sooner, the efficacy of which Obama has rejected as a ‘fantasy.’ And as far as the ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ mantra, she said it was not ‘an organising principle’ — something that ‘great nations’ need. Despite her pains to praise Obama in the interview — and the fact that her positions on the issues were already publicly known — her comments were widely interpreted through a political prism that casts her as a calculating figure, and that therefore this must have been part of an intentional calibration away from the increasingly unpopular Obama.

“Several Clinton supporters have stressed that she is entitled to her own views, and that she is in a bind — either criticised as overly calculating if she stays silent or faulted for being candid about what she thinks. One of the criticisms about her interview relates to its timing: It comes as Obama is attempting to get his arms around a number of overseas crises, from Ukraine to Gaza to Syria.”

Such criticisms have fuelled the narrative – such as an extraordinarily harsh column by Maureen Dowd – that the real Hillary Clinton is a schemer and a conniver – with little loyalty to the president who plucked from the status of being an also-ran and who gave her a prime stage position for as long as she wished to have it. Dowd wrote in her excoriation, “With the diplomatic finesse of a wrecking ball, the former diplomat gave an interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, a hawk, in a calculated attempt to be tough and show that, as a Democratic woman, she’s not afraid to use power. Channelling her pal John McCain, she took a cheap shot at President Obama when his approval rating on foreign policy had dropped to 36 percent, calling him a wimp just as he was preparing to order airstrikes against ISIS. As one Democrat noted, citing the callous Clintonian principle that unpopular things make foolish investments: ‘If Obama was at 63 instead of 36, she’d be happy to be Robin to his Batman.’

“It’s not that she’s too old, despite nasty cracks on conservative websites like the Washington Free Beacon. It’s that she’s too old-think, thrusting herself forward as a hawk at a time when hawks — in the season of Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul — aren’t so cool. Americans are sick of the idea that we should plunge in and plant our flag in the ground and work out the details later. It’s a complicated world, where you cross the border from Syria to Iraq and your allies are the enemy…. After buoying Hillary, Obama is learning the truth of another unofficial slogan in politics: ‘The Clintons will be there when they need you.’ ” Dowd will obviously not be joining the Clinton cheering squad this time around.

Besides her apparent willingness to kick the president when he is stumbling, there is the question of how this play by Clinton in her Atlantic interview should be interpreted in electoral or campaign terms. Are there some not-so-hidden messages in all this? As noted above, part of this clearly seems to have been to open a little daylight between her and the perception of a floundering Obama administration, so as to position herself as a candidate who is really made of stern stuff, who is willing to take the tough, unpopular decisions and who is not psychologically a part of that reactive Obama administration.

Some are arguing that this staking out of some muscular foreign policy territory is specifically designed to redirect policy towards a more pro-Israel stance, in order to line up support for the coming election. That is too easy an equation. In fact, American Jews, throughout the Obama presidency and for two Obama electoral victories, have remained strongly in the Democratic fold, just where they have been since the Great Depression some eighty-plus years ago, when they moved decisively from the Republican column – in response to domestic economic policies. Similarly, while it is true many well-off Jewish Americans have been significant backers of Democratic candidates, especially with financial support, that community was strongly in Obama’s corner as well, and there is little evidence they would move away from that party over nuances in US-Israel policy, despite what some in lobbying organisations like AIPAC might say. In any case, financial contributions are more strongly linked to domestic issues than foreign policy, just as voters more generally are, and they rarely make electoral choices primarily on foreign policy issues.

Is it somehow possible, however, that this gambit was an effort to pre-emptively make a play for some of the evangelical-fundamentalist-fundamentalist Christian voters? There are 35 million or so voters in that pond, and they have been the major bloc of voters that kept the pressure on Republican presidents over Israel in the past number of years. This is based in part on theological doctrine over the imminence of “the Rapture” and the “End of Days” – and the need for an apocalyptic event in Israel to move things along in a spritely fashion. These are voters who have, for much of the past fifty years, beceome increasingly firmly embedded within the Republican camp, ever since the Nixonian “Southern Strategy”, In theory at least, some of these voters might conceivably be up for grabs in the 2016 election, depending on who the Republicans determine to be their candidate, especially if they end up going for an isolationist like Senator Rand Paul who has eschewed the older Republican internationalist approach – and close ties with Israel.

The two key problems with these speculations about gaming the campaign in 2016 are, first, that the election is simply too far away for an early pronouncement such as the Atlantic interview to carry much weight two years later, other things being equal. Things change, events evolve, new realities on the ground will be what matters two years hence. The second point is that US elections, absent an absolutely critical foreign policy challenge like the imminent possibility of an invasion on home turf, are almost always fought on domestic issues – and primarily domestic economic ones. The other question that matters in an election is one of leadership – how well, how effectively, how capably the electorate judges a candidate to be in coping with the kinds of challenges a president must inevitably face during his or her tenure in office.

If this is true, this Clinton interview represents a worrisome example of judgement; not about policy, per se, but about how Clinton positions herself as a candidate of the realist middle ground. Commentary magazine, a rock-solid supporter of Israel, even expressed its doubts in Seth Mandel’s comment, “Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticised President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.”

Still, her positions in that Atlantic interview – and, even more, her stridency in stating them and her slap at her own incumbent president – will worry the commentariat, and this interview may well give such people, individuals who might otherwise have been in her corner,  a reason to look again at other possible candidates for a party that may well have a difficult case to make (at least in foreign affairs), come 2016. DM

Photo: U.S.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the September attack on U.S. diplomatic sites in Benghazi, Libya during a hearing held by  the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington January 23, 2013.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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