The breaking news of Hillary Clinton’s unrepentant stumbles on the subject of Pakistan hasn't shocked me. It's an old story. During interviews in the aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s killing Thursday, Clinton had suggested she was a familiar hand at Pakistani politics and a close acquaintance of Bhutto (which is apparently due more to Bhutto’s outreach in Washington than to HRC’s globetrotting). In the process, she got a few details of her friend’s life wrong—the number of children, the manner of her father’s death—but the worst was yet to come. Candidate Clinton said on CNN Friday:
If President Musharraf wishes to stand for election, then he should abide by the same rules that every other candidate will have to follow.
And on ABC’s This Week two days later:
[Musharraf] could be the only person on the ballot. I don't think that's a real election.
The issue, of course, is that the now-postponed elections were parliamentary. And Musharraf, as president, will most certainly not be on the ballot.
Again, it’s not that Hillary’s experience blanket is looking slightly holey—though it is. (Joe Biden dished a zinger on the subject today.) I’m willing to bet that she doesn’t and needn’t have endless reserves of information on Pakistan handy; most of the major candidates (even Saint Biden) are likely prepping—on issues from guns to farm subsidies—from index cards managed by aides. The best candidates, however, posess a mixture of genuine curiosity, a solid base of understanding and a sharp learning curve that allows them to appear superhumanly knowledgeable on the fly. Clinton is usually very good. But at this point any candidate should get more than the gist of what’s going on in Pakistan. And as one running on her wonkishness and fo-po experience, Hillary is doubly on the hook for this one.
I’ll leave it to the imagination what might happen if another candidate, Democratic or Republican, had made this error. But once again, the issue at hand is one of character. Which to me is not about perfection, but the handling of its opposite (I never thought I’d side with Giuliani on this one). And as I noted a few weeks back,
it character doesn’t often change.
The real story is the cynical, egotistic response to Hillary's rare but clear blunder. Handler Howard Wolfson immediately rephrased Clinton's two statements as referring to a political party rather than the “President Musharraf” she spoke of four days after the Bhutto news blitz (if only Mike Huckabee had had that time to catch the NIE). The mind trick captures the instinctive bunker mentality that would pervade a Hillary Clinton administration. She could probably just say she misspoke, and put an end to a story that—if the MSM is working hard enough—should have legs for more than a few days. But she won’t. She can’t. It’s not in her blood. (Bill Clinton’s showiness, I think, is also self-serving but different in kind from Hillary’s defensive crouch).
William Safire has his fingers crossed that the next election will be decided on character. In light of the Wilentz/Sunstein spat, I think it's a conversation worth having. Hillary's tendency to double-down in a crisis (albeit a minor one) and bring ‘em on has been patented by the Bush administration, and is surprisingly reckless for a candidate so reliant on a narrative of stability and competence. Out of the campaign lab and on the world stage, ego trips of this nature (hers) could cost lives, or lose crucial votes on crucial bills at home.* The "Me Against the World" mantra certainly didn't do her any favors during Whitewater, and will be unattractive to watch in her presidency.
*It’s also, incidentally, the strain of arrogance that led to the thieving of Kenyan elections this week.