If you haven't heard this clip from a Clinton conference call yesterday, it's worth a listen. Slate's John Dickerson (who has a way of knocking powerful political types off balance with seemingly straight-forward questions) asks Mark Penn, Howard Wolfson, and foreign policy aide Lee Feinstein to name a moment when Hillary's been tested in a foreign policy crisis--this in the context of the "red phone" ad Clinton released yesterday. The best Penn could do was cite Hillary's "women's rights are human rights" speech in Beijing in 1995, which was a fine speech, but strange for a campaign that accuses its opponent of being all talk and no action. Then Feinstein gamely ticked off Hillary's endorsements from an assortment of generals--an impressive list, but also kind of beside the point.
Matt Yglesias rightly seizes on the ineptitude of cutting an ad touting Hillary's readiness to handle a foreign-policy crisis without making sure you could name one she's actually handled. "How could they go forward with that ad without having a good answer to the question on hand?" he asks. The only explanation I can think of occurred to me while reading Dickerson's reflection on the episode. After raising some of these same questions, Dickerson writes:
And yet, there's no question that Hillary Clinton has been more tested in her life than Barack Obama. She has taken a very public pounding from conservatives for the last 15 years on issues ranging from her private finances to her health-care plan to her possible perjury. She has had to endure the brutal public scrutiny and crucible of her husband's infidelities. The troubles she's seen are so much a part of the public consciousness that she need give only the smallest nod to evoke them. When CNN's Campbell Brown asked Clinton at the Austin debate two weeks ago when Clinton had been tested in her life, and she answered, "I think everyone knows I've lived through some crisis and challenges in my life," the audience immediately applauded. If you believe that humans have a clearer view of what to do under pressure because they've dealt with serious pressure before, then Hillary is your gal. (Even if the pressure so far hasn't come over a red phone line.)
I suspect the Clinton campaign was thinking something along these lines. Indeed, the first line out of Penn's mouth was, "I think that a.) she has been tested throughout her life in so many matters..." The problem, as Dickerson implies, is that this conflates two different things: Being tested politically and being tested in a substantive crisis--a national security crisis in this case. Just because Hillary's been tested the first way doesn't mean she's been tested the second. The reason the Clinton campaign was embarrassed here is because they forgot that distinction.