All the conspicuous alarm over the first-ever YouTube presidential debate becoming terminally inane now seems quite overblown. Trivializing presidential runs is clearly still the specialty of the campaign press—which has devoted a week’s worth of coverage to taking one of the most substantive questions raised in the Charleston, S.C., Democratic forum and reducing it to the usual content-free fare of the horse race.
The alleged controversy concerns how Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton replied to a YouTube question asking the candidates if they would “meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration” with the authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Iran. Senator Obama replied that he would, since the Bush-Cheney diplomatic record shows that shutting off negotiations with governments hostile to the United States is “ridiculous”; Senator Clinton said that she would not initiate discussions without conditions, or on any timeline, since doing so could prompt foreign leaders to exploit the occasion for propaganda purposes.
In debate-scoring points, Ms. Clinton clearly supplied the better answer—though in past pronouncements on prospective talks with Iran and Syria, she didn’t see fit to offer the sort of specific qualifications she did here. (And even so, the qualification of sending envoys ahead of a diplomatic meeting is far from a “precondition” in the sense the questioner seemed to intend; it is, rather, standard procedure for most any presidential diplomatic overture.)
But the campaign-spinning, predictably enough, soon overtook the substance of the question, with Team Hillary seeking to press its tactical advantage with a heavy-handed press release dubbing the Obama position “irresponsible and naïve.” And in short order, the Illinois senator groused in a follow-up interview that the exchange had shown that Senator Clinton was really proposing to shore up a version of the diplomatic status quo, a.k.a. “Bush-Cheney lite.”
Now, modern presidential campaigns love to exploit such gnat-straining disputes as studies in statesmanlike self-regard, bandying the sober vocabulary of leadership, judgment and responsibility to dress up their own alleged strengths as global visionaries. And the press plays along just as eagerly, because they have at least as transparent a stake in serving as chin-stroking arbiters of diplomatic excellence, going back to the great diplomatic gamesmanship of the Cold War—when the press and the government soberly laid the groundwork for some of the most morally catastrophic decisions taken by the American state. Kennedy and Nixon scored tough-guy points off each other in the 1960 presidential debate when they addressed the arcane question of sovereignty for the tiny Asian islands of Quemoy and Matsu, for example, but both leaders, once ascended to power, were authors of horrible policies in Vietnam.
And today’s press and the campaign scene are just as susceptible as ever to exercising the same poor judgment on the matters they have selected to flex their sober expertise. The larger configuration of the Clinton-Obama flap, for instance, is to dramatize each candidate’s repudiation of the Bush White House’s confessedly self-defeating posture of nonengagement with hostile regimes. But that seems like an easily stipulated point for pretty much the entire Democratic field—and dwelling on it obsessively permits all parties to sidestep thornier questions on the foreign policy front, such as how to manage an effective withdrawal from Iraq, and how to bolster American interests in dealings with pivotal countries we do bargain with, such as Turkey and Pakistan. Both those regimes have lately teetered with all sorts of unreckoned fallout from the delusional Iraq occupation—with fresh reports just this week indicating that the Bush White House is proceeding with a very risky arms initiative permitting Turkey to take out the Kurdish guerilla leaders of a cross-border insurgency from northern Iraq. In America’s new Iraq-impaired diplomatic world, in other words, we seem no more coherently positioned to responsibly broker negotiations with allies than we are with hostile regimes.
And that bigger point is what the Obama camp seeks to drive home by branding the Clinton position “Bush-Cheney lite”—it’s a none-too-subtle reminder of the junior New York senator’s vote to authorize the White House to prosecute the Iraq war in 2002. “Obama made a stupid mistake, but it was I think in the heat of the cable TV moment,” says former D.N.C. press secretary Terry Michael. “But that pales in comparison with Hillary’s mistaken vote for the war.… If the Obama people are smart, they’ll charge her with Bush-style obstinacy in refusing to concede a far bigger mistake that cost thousands of Americans and many more Iraqis their lives. By continuing to refuse to apologize for the war vote, she’s keeping this image as a tough-broad Armed Services member. She says, ‘Let’s just move on, since I’m against this war now.’ It’s a classic John Kerry move. The war is still the only issue in this campaign, as it was in 2004, and for most voters, it’s simple: You’re either for it or you’re against it. Hillary’s trying to have it both ways.”
That, needless to say, isn’t how Team Hillary views things. “Obama was positively champing at the bit in last week’s debate to open an attack against Clinton,” says someone close to the Clinton campaign. “I can’t help but say it—I guess for Obama, a ‘new kind of politics’ means ‘acting like the aggressor.’ The problem is that this backfired on Obama and now his major weaknesses as a candidate are on full display. Instead of generating a laser-focused attack on Senator Clinton’s 2002 Iraq vote—a vote for which she has taken full responsibility—Obama is the one who has been weakened. That ‘Bush-Cheney lite’ comment? That came out of the mouth of a man thrown off his game.”
All of which may be true enough. But the bigger problem here is that the campaigns and the media alike are so invested in treating the making of foreign policy as campaign fodder—and painstakingly clocking the ephemeral horse-race advantage that springs from such posturing. After eight years of having the Bush White House do pretty much the same thing by using diplomatic bellicosity to stimulate fear and executive-branch idolatry in the electorate, maybe the real lesson here is that the whole top tier of Democratic candidates is on course to produce a Bush-Cheney-lite view of the world—and as with the drafting of the original version, the press is only too happy to collaborate.