In the days since Hillary Clinton unburdened herself in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the political world has been arguing about the meaning and purpose of her thinly veiled attack on President Obama’s foreign policy. “Great nations need organizing principles,” Clinton said, “and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
This occasioned exactly the political maelstrom you’d expect, with Obama advisers fuming at Clinton, Clinton advisers insisting her remarks weren’t aimed at Obama, and the two sides eventually forced into an awkward, hug-it-out détente at a party on Martha’s Vineyard that both wound up attending on Wednesday night.
At its heart, the argument is about whether Clinton’s criticism was motivated by an opportunistic desire to distance herself from an unpopular president or whether it was a sincere reflection of her policy views, which have always been more hawkish than Obama’s.
That’s a flawed way of looking at the issue, because the answer is almost certainly that it’s both.
I don’t doubt that the sentiments Clinton expressed to Goldberg are genuine. But it’s impossible to remove politics from the equation—particularly on foreign policy—because Clinton’s foreign policy judgment has been central to her self-conception and public presentation ever since she struck out on her own as a politician. It must be more so after her term as secretary of State. It’s something her most trusted strategists have nursed along, urging her to take Margaret Thatcher as a role model.
Here’s an excerpt from a private memo that Clinton’s chief strategist, Mark Penn, wrote for her at the outset of the 2008 presidential campaign and was later leaked to me:
There are all sorts of interesting things at play here, not least of which is the implication that Clinton’s gender practically requires her to assume an Iron Lady persona. But there’s no question that she took Penn’s advice, her infamous “3 a.m.” ad being the best example:
If that’s an accurate depiction of how Hillary Clinton views herself—and I’m certain it is—and if she’s really running for president (ditto), then it would be natural for her differences with Obama to manifest themselves on exactly the kinds of topics she discussed with Goldberg. Even more so because there’s so little disagreement among Democrats on domestic issues. I’ll bet she eventually goes further.