Among those of us who write frequently about Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming president, there have generally been two key assumptions: First, that Clinton’s biggest obstacle to winning the Democratic nomination, such as it is, will be the rising economic populism within the party, not a foreign policy schism. And second, that Barack Obama and his advisers will give Clinton a fair amount of latitude in distancing herself from his administration, because they understand that this will help her in 2016, and because they believe a Clinton victory is their best hope of protecting his legacy.
Since Sunday, however, when Clinton’s provocative interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg came out, both assumptions have looked somewhat questionable.
In the interview, Clinton was surprisingly critical of Obama’s foreign policy worldview, mostly from the right. “You know, when you’re down on yourself, and when you are hunkering down and pulling back, you’re not going to make any better decisions than when you were aggressively, belligerently putting yourself forward,” Clinton told Goldberg. In general, she derided Obama's approach as simplistic. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Clinton said, alluding to a phrase Team Obama has used to summarize its foreign policy.
In response, the president’s top campaign strategist, David Axelrod, huffed on Twitter that, “Just to clarify: ‘Don't do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision”—a decision Clinton famously supported while in the Senate. Meanwhile, the liberal activist group MoveOn has issued a statement urging Clinton to “think long and hard before embracing the same polices advocated by right-wing war hawks that got American into Iraq.”
Clinton’s aides have tried to downplay her comments, saying they arranged the interview before they knew Obama would strike Sunni radicals last week. But it’s fair to say Hillary, too, has long assumed that the bigger threat to her 2016 nomination chances was economic policy rather than foreign policy. Though she often talks about income inequality in ways that seem targeted to reassure liberals (even if this liberal doesn’t find the talk reassuring), she has felt comfortable staking out more hawkish national security positions than Obama, not least in her recently-released memoir.
Or, put another way, it seems that the potential Democratic challenger Hillary fears most is Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, with her wildly popular brand of economic populism, rather than Joe Biden, who has often been to Hillary’s left during the administration’s internal foreign policy debates.
As a general rule, this is a reasonable approach. Warren has the ability to raise enormous sums of money for a presidential run and she truly excites the liberal activists who dominate the early primaries. She’s also a woman, meaning she could neutralize Hillary’s strongest emotional connection to many Democratic voters. Biden is none of these things: He has struggled to raise money in the past; Democratic primary voters roundly rejected him in 2008; and, of course, he has that Y chromosome. Setting aside the power of the issues on their own, it’s no surprise that Hillary has chosen to move left on Warren’s issues rather than Biden’s as she plots her course to the nomination.
Moreover, Warren has so far shown little interest in or ability to raise her profile on foreign policy. As I reported in my profile of her last year, she struck one prominent Jewish Democratic donor as somewhat inartful when discussing Israel. (The donor generally agreed with her on the substance of the issue.) After the outbreak of the latest war between Israel and Hamas, Warren (almost literally) ran away from questions on the subject.
But, in light of the reaction to her Atlantic comments, there appear to be several problems with Clinton’s strategy of defusing Warren's issues and not Biden's, even if Biden himself isn't a big threat.1 First, opposition among Democrats to overseas interventions, particularly in the Middle East, remains so strong and raw that, if Clinton continues in this vein, even a weaker insurgent candidate than Warren could theoretically rough up Clinton in a primary (although probably not defeat her outright). That’s particularly so when you consider that Obama remains very popular within the Democratic Party. It’s bad enough to announce your support for a more hawkish foreign policy. It’s much worse to marry it with a shot at the president.
Second, it’s a mistake to assume that Warren herself is incapable of adding a foreign policy critique of Hillary Clinton to her economic critique. Recall that Howard Dean was a Vermont governor best known for his views on health care before he captivated liberals during the 2004 primaries over his opposition to the Iraq War. If Dean can do it, Warren can, too. In my piece, I reported that Warren holds monthly dinners in which outside policy experts brief her on subjects she knows less about. I can report that at least one of these dinners has involved experts on national security and foreign policy.
Third, as mentioned above, Team Obama has calculated that it’s in the president’s interest to see Clinton succeed him. I suspect that will remain the case, Axelrod’s venting notwithstanding. But Obama’s advisers are not the same as Obama’s donors, many of whom have never loved the Clintons and still don’t to this day. A few more comments like this and many will be happy to ante up for Warren or some other challenger—perhaps even Biden, whose loyalty to the president many Obama donors consider his most important quality.
Finally, there’s the small matter of the general election. To the extent that Clinton’s comments reflect political positioning (as opposed to sincere belief, which is almost certainly part of the story), the idea is to look past the Democratic primaries and insulate herself against attacks from an establishment Republican challenger like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker. The problem here is two-fold. First, it’s not at all clear those attacks would work—polling overwhelmingly shows the country, not just Democratic voters, to be weary of foreign-policy interventionism. Second, it’s not impossible that Clinton would end up facing a Republican intent on getting to her left on these questions, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.
To put it mildly, the neoconservative foreign-policy establishment hasn’t had a lot of luck picking president’s lately. Whether or not a Clinton-Paul matchup ever materializes, it’s probably not a good sign that the neocons favor Clinton over the Kentucky senator by a longshot.
I tweaked this sentence for clarity.