It was inevitable that Hillary Clinton would begin to distance herself from the Obama brand. Hence her willingness to criticize the president in Atlantic magazine, to essentially signal her declaration of independence during the run-up to 2016.
Her remarks, posted this weekend, have raised a lot of eyebrows – and annoyed a lot of liberal Democrats (which might prompt a speed bump down the road) – but first we need a bit of context:
A White House aspirant always needs to demonstrate what he or she might do differently, even (or especially) if the current occupant hails from the same party. And a loyalist like Hillary, even after four years as Secretary of State, would be nuts to signal that she’s in lockstep with a lame duck who’s down in the polls. In such circumstances, voicing some independence is Politics 101. And if she does so by sounding more hawkish on foreign policy than her old boss – well, that’s not exactly huge news, because her more hawkish views have long been on record.
Still, what she said about Obama and Syria is still noteworthy – as she no doubt intended. She basically blamed Obama for the rise of ISIS. She basically told Atlantic interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg (a center-right foreign policy guy) that if Obama had listened to her way back when, if he had agreed to arm Syrian rebels and nurture some moderate elements in the fight against the thuggish Syrian regime, the ISIS extremists might not be running rampant in the region today. Her key remarks:
“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad – there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle – the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled…I did believe, which is why I advocated this, that if we were to carefully vet, train, and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army, we would, number one, have some better insight into what was going on on the ground. Two, we would have been helped in standing up a credible political opposition…I said this at the time (that) in a conflict like this, the hard men with the guns are going to be the more likely actors in any political transition than those on the outside just talking.”
Overall, she was very diplomatic about Obama – “he’s thoughtful, he’s incredibly smart, and able to analyze a lot of different factors all moving at the same time…he has expended a lot of capital and energy trying to pull us out of the hole we’re in” – but every so often she slipped in a zinger.
For instance, she doesn’t like it when Obama’s aides quip that their top foreign policy principle is “Don’t do stupid stuff.” (Stuff is the PG version.) Hillary’s retort: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” She said that we (in other words, he) should be selling those American principles more “aggressively, belligerently.” And she implicitly zinged him for not being a sufficiently effective communicator: “We don’t even tell our own story very well these days.”
We can endlessly debate the policy substance (would arming the Syrian rebels really have worked? even she concedes it might have failed), but I’m most interested in the presidential politics. Steve Clemons, a smart think tank guy, tells Politico, “I guess she is ready to rip the Clinton franchise away from the Obama franchise. This is a staggeringly important interview, and, in many ways, it’s going to reawaken the substantial resistance to her as a reckless interventionist (in) some quarters.”
By “quarters,” Clemons is rightly referring to the liberal Democrats who vote heavily in presidential primaries – the same voters who dumped Hillary for Obama in ’08 because of her Senate vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Liberal Democrats may not be wild about Obama anymore, but they’re still loyal enough to resent Hillary’s efforts to create some distance and outflank him on his right.
It’s also noteworthy that some of the heftiest Hillary praise this week comes from the likes of center-right columnist David Brooks (who approvingly says, “there’s a certain muscular tone”), and conservative commentator Matt Lewis (who says, “Clinton may be co-opting the strongest argument the GOP has: A return to American toughness and exceptionalism”). That kind of praise is a turnoff to liberal Democrats, some of whom might start pining again for an alternative candidate during primary season.
But if it’s not Elizabeth Warren (who has no foreign policy chops anyway), then who’d mount a credible challenge? Bernie Sanders? Surely you jest. Martin O’Malley? Again, no foreign policy chops. The Clinton franchise has clearly calculated that it can declare independence from Obama without suffering major Democratic blowback.
And that’s arguably the right call. Hillary’s implicit message to the liberal base: “You may not like everything I say or everything I hope to do, but wouldn’t you rather have me in the White House – as opposed to some Republican – protecting Obamacare and naming the next round of Supreme Court justices? Politics is half a loaf, so bon appetite.”
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