Once again, Hillary Clinton has reminded us that she is not a natural-born politician—unlike her husband, Bill. Questioned by Diane Sawyer about her role in what went wrong in Benghazi, Clinton slipped into monotonal legalism and disavowed her own responsibility for security breaches surrounding the murders by Islamic militants of J. Christopher Stevens, our ambassador to Libya, and Sean Smith, a foreign service officer.
Dodging and weaving, Clinton punted on her own nexus to disaster: “I am not. I’m not equipped to sit and look at blueprints. To determine where the blast walls need to be—where the reinforcements need to be. That’s why we hire people who have that expertise.” Got that? That’s called self-absolution.
Yet aside from re-awakening the issues of honesty and likeability that plagued her 2008 candidacy, there was also something retro about Clinton’s performance. Among those of us old enough to remember, Clinton’s technocratic answer brought back memories of Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential debate debacle, when he just couldn’t get excited when asked how he would react if his wife and had been raped and murdered.
It’s not that Clinton can’t “do” passionate, it’s just that when she does it seems suffused with the expedient. Take Clinton’s stint as a court-appointed defense counsel for a man accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. As Josh Rogin reported in The Daily Beast, the victim has now accused Clinton of smearing her and using dishonest tactics to successfully get her attacker off with a light sentence—time served in lockup—even though the victim claims Clinton knew that the perp was guilty.
As Clinton herself described what went down, she had the accused “take a polygraph, which he passed—which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs.” That Clinton did a great job as a defense attorney should come as no surprise. But her pat of her own head for helping a rapist beat the rap, in contrast to her evasive narrative of what went wrong in Libya, is a letdown to say the least.
And to be sure, a candidate’s past employment is fair game; just ask former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson. In 2007 Thompson, was coming off of his stint as a TV prosecutor on NBC’s “Law and Order” and was mulling a presidential run. Polls showed him to be a serious candidate, and for a while he led the Republican pack. But then stories surfaced of Thompson’s having lobbied for abortion rights after leaving the Senate, and in the Republican Primaries that is one credential you can really do without.
Sounding Clintonian, Thompson warbled, “[I]f a client has a legal and ethical right to take a position, then you may appropriately represent him as long as he does not lie or otherwise conduct himself improperly while you are representing him. In almost 30 years of practicing law I must have had hundreds of clients and thousands of conversations about legal matters.”
It’s not that Clinton is destined to meet Thompson’s fate of an early exit from her party’s primaries. Unlike Thompson, Clinton has consistently shown a willingness to fight for the prize, and knows that even if she wins, the contest won’t be a coronation.
At this moment, Clinton looks like she has a lock on the Democratic nomination. But her book tour has not engendered public enthusiasm or warmth. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 38 percent of registered voters said they would “probably” or be “almost certain to” vote for Clinton, while 37 percent said they’d definitely vote against her.
What is becoming clearer by the day is that Clinton’s charm is limited, at a time when Barack Obama’s unpopularity may also rub off on her—and that’s a problem. Elections coming when the incumbent has maxed out on two terms are as much about the outgoing president as they are about the candidates. Just ask John McCain, whose own 2008 presidential bid was hamstrung by George W. Bush’s Election Day approval rating of 28 percent.
The country has soured on Obama. Sure, for over a year the president’s approval rating has been underwater. But now he has reached the point where America has tuned out and turned off.
In the words of NBC’s Chuck Todd, “You look at the presidency here: lowest job rating, tied for the lowest; lowest on foreign policy. His administration is seen as less competent than the Bush administration, post-Katrina.” Being a social avatar doesn’t make you competent; logging thousands and thousands of miles doesn’t mean that you actually got the job done, especially as the Middle East is once again in flames.
So here Clinton stands, tethered to a president who is neither loved nor feared. And for all of the distance she may need to put between herself and Obama, she knows that she can never really run away from him and his record. Hillary wants to be viewed as Bill’s successor, but given where Obama is going that may not be possible.