Politics

12.09.13

Hillary at Foggy Bottom

I was in Paris over the weekend speaking to a conference at the Institut Francais du Relations Internationales (www.ifri.org, and thank you, nice people of IFRI, for your hospitality!) about American domestic politics, and more specifically, the Democrats' future and a possible Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016. The room included a combination of American ex-pats and diplomats and, well, French people, keenly interested in America and in HRC.

They're quite sharp about American politics, extremely well-informed. I said the same thing I always say when asked about Clinton, which is that I think she will probably run, and that if she runs, she will probably win, but she does face three challenges:

1. She'll have to run a better campaign. Here I was stiffly challenged by a French journalist in the audience who was quick to remind me and fellow panelist and old friend John Zogby that she got more votes in 2008 than Barack Obama did, but she lost all those silly caucuses. I replied, well, those were the rules, and she knew them. This seemed to satisfy most of the audience.

2. She'll have to demonstrate both continuity with Obama in some respects and a break from Obama in certain others. She has say to Obama backers that she'll carry on his fights on certain issues, but at the same time most voters want some change after eight years, so she'll have to come up with some ways to signal that she'll be different.

3. She'll need to remake herself a bit economically and lift at least one foot out of the Rubin camp and dip it into the economic populist camp. That's where the weight of the party is right now. And boy, did they like Elizabeth Warren over there!

Anyway, one thing that didn't come up was Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. Today, Susan Glasser at Politico weighs in with a consideration: "Was Hillary Clinton a good secretary of state?" Answer: Good, not great. Explanations proferred: that she was limited by her own caution and her own thoughts about her positioning in 2016; that she was limited by the Obama White House, which was very controlling.

I dispute the premise. I would agree that she was plenty hemmed in by the White House, but I wouldn't say that the lack of a big, world-historical handshake means she wasn't a great diplomat in important ways. I made the case in a Newsweek cover story when she left Foggy Bottom, which, now that Newsweek is in other hands, is apparently no longer available online.

Clinton did a lot to bring State into the current century and into the social media age, and her programs for women and girls were without precedent, as Glasser's piece ungrudgingly acknowledges. She also did have important diplomatic successes--great strides made with Russia until Putin came back into office, the Libya intervention, the Iran sanctions.

It's important to keep in mind the difference between a president's first and second terms in foreign policy. Usually, for a two-termer, the first term merely sets up conditions for (hoped-for) second-term successes. Reagan followed this model, as did Bill Clinton. George W. Bush was thrust into a different position because of 9-11, after which foreign policy obviously took center stage. But you'd be hard-pressed to name a president who had a really major diplomatic victory in his first term. Truman, I suppose, with Greece and Turkey, but there was a special urgency to that situation (and a Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who agreed to back the Truman Doctrine wholeheartedly).

The Clinton State Department record won't be all that much of a factor in 2016, I don't think. Even her critics agree she did a good job under tough circumstances, except for those critics for whom Benghazi is everything, but they're a pretty small minority, and unless there's some new revelation on that front, there arent any more questions to ask.

But to extent her State years will matter, they'll be for most voters a plus for the simple reason that she's been around the world so many times and knows so many foreign leaders and has gotten to know the inside-baseball politics of the world's hotspots so well. That's more foreign-policy experience than any presidential candidate, well, ever, that I can think of. John McCain would be up there, and George H.W. Bush, but she outpoints even them. She would be able to hit the ground running in a way few presidents have. It's another reason for Republicans to fear her, which is why they grasp at Benghazi.