Exactly one year to the day after she formally ended her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton appeared on ABC’s This Week on Sunday on behalf of the man who beat her.
Clinton, in her new role as Barack Obama’s secretary of state, presented the administration’s perspective on an array of international hot potatoes, from North Korea’s resurgent nuclear program to Israel’s reluctance to curtail its West Bank settlement program.
Unintentionally, though, her performance served as a reminder of just how phony even the most heated primary campaigns often are.
Over and over last winter and spring, you’ll recall, Clinton and her team sought to stoke fear among Democratic primary voters about Obama’s preparation for the presidency—more specifically, his readiness to deal with an international crisis.
“I believe that I've done that. Certainly, Senator McCain has done that, and you'll have to ask Senator Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she said last February. There was also the notorious “red phone” ad that Clinton aired in the days before the Texas primary, not to mention her “ready from Day One” mantra, an unsubtle formulation intended to draw a contrast with Obama.
The Clinton attacks were designed to work on two fronts. If they convinced Democrats that Obama would be unstable, erratic and ultimately overwhelmed as commander in chief, well, that was great. They were also aimed at forcing Democrats who didn’t necessarily doubt Obama’s leadership skills to think pragmatically: “My God, imagine what the Republicans will do to this guy in the fall!”
The stakes of the Democratic race, Clinton never missed an opportunity to remind us, were enormous, and the contrasts between the candidates as clear as day. Her supporters believed her, and stuck with her all the way through June—even longer in some cases. And in doing so, they were often even more adamant that the party was making a seismic error in nominating Obama.
It might interest you to know, then, that Clinton no longer has any doubts about Obama’s leadership abilities. In fact, she’s quite the admirer of his!
When George Stephanopoulos asked her on This Week whether he could handle a 3 a.m. crisis call, she quickly responded: “Absolutely. The president, in his public actions and demeanor and certainly in private with me and with the national security team, has been strong, thoughtful and decisive. I think he’s doing a terrific job and it’s an honor to serve with him.”
This was after she’d spent 20 minutes or so pleading Obama’s case on all sorts of foreign policy topics. In this, too, Secretary Clinton was directly at odds with Candidate Clinton. For instance, in 2008, Clinton sought to showcase her foreign policy resolve and toughness by announcing that, with her as president, the U.S. would “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. The strategy was simple: Either Obama would echo her statement or refuse to join in it. Either way, he’d look weak. (At least in theory.)
But when on Sunday Stephanopoulos presented her with the same hypothetical—an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel— and asked if there would be retaliation from the U.S., she replied only that “well, I think there would be retaliation.”
The truth is, there never really was any dispute between Clinton and Obama on this issue in the first place. Since Israel already has hundreds of nuclear weapons, the question of whether the U.S. would “obliterate” Iran after a nuclear attack on Israel is moot; Israel would do it itself, no matter what the U.S., or anyone else, said or did. Clinton’s answer to Stephanopoulos acknowledges this reality without spelling it all out (since American politicians still don’t officially acknowledge Israel’s nuclear program).
Once she fell behind Obama in the primaries, Clinton’s campaign spent months trafficking in fear. To many people outside her campaign, the questions she raised were deadly serious. Many Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters came to genuinely believe that Obama would, as Bill Clinton put it during the campaign, “a roll of the dice.”
But it now seems like Clinton didn’t really mean any of it. She was simply latching on to her one apparent advantage over Obama—experience—and pushing the limits of how much she could exploit it for. Which is fine; she was an ambitious politician who wanted to win, and she relied on the best strategy available. It’s not like she’s the first politician ever to do that. In fact, she’s not even the first Clinton to do it.
In 1992, Bill Clinton beat back an unexpected challenge from Paul Tsongas in that year’s Democratic primaries by savaging Tsongas’ economic platform, which called for a mix of painful spending cuts and tax hikes. Spying an opening, Clinton called for a middle-class tax cut and relentlessly attacked Tsongas’ plan as a threat to the health and well-being of the poor, the middle class and retirees.
It worked, and Clinton beat Tsongas. And then, almost as soon as he became president, he reneged on his middle-class tax-cut pledge and pushed through a budget that looked startlingly similar to the plan Tsongas had laid out in his campaign. Turns out, Clinton never really disagreed with Tsongas all that much, either.
We’ve seen this on the Republican side, too. George H. W. Bush tried to scare Republicans out of backing Ronald Reagan in 1980, arguing that his tax cut program amounted to “voodoo economics” and that his cultural conservatism would render him unelectable in the fall. But then Bush became Reagan’s running mate—and a tireless champion of trickle-down economics, school prayer and the anti-abortion movement.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now call the 2008 Democratic primary campaign exactly what it was: a dramatic clash of two highly ambitious and disciplined candidates whose personalities and life stories provoked radically different emotional reactions from different groups of people. But it’s hard not to wonder what the fuss was all about.