At first glance, it is not entirely clear exactly what Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are fighting about. On the surface, of course, it’s possible to outline the various steps in this summer’s first open spat between the Democratic frontrunners.
Asked at last week’s debate whether they would agree to meet with the leaders of hostile countries, Obama didn’t rule it out, and Hillary didn’t rule it in. This led the Hillary team to suggest that Obama was naive and the Obama team to suggest that Hillary was either inconsistent or no different than Bush-Cheney – a comment that Hillary later labeled as “getting kind of silly,” and with which Bush and Cheney would certainly not agree.
Then there was Obama’s claim at the”off the record” presentation in front of the gathering of New York’s chattering class at the Time-Warner Center that he was the most experienced candidate on foreign policy, followed by his jab at Hillary during a network interview for her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. The Illinois Senator claimed that Senator Clinton should not have authorized the president to use force without a plan to withdraw the troops when it failed.
If you read the pundits and pundettes, the consensus seems to be that Hillary has gotten the best of Obama last week, especially on Monday night, when she sounded more experienced and realistic about the world than her younger, more idealistic colleague. On the other hand, if you look at the focus group results, including one I read of Democrats conducted for Fox News, Obama was the winner, with people liking his optimistic idealism, not realizing it was somehow unrealistic or naive.
Meanwhile, most of the country continued to watch baseball, Lindsay Lohan and the farce of the Tour de France. All that to say, we’re in spring training, and summer spats don’t move voters so much as give us insight into what’s to come.
Will voters be willing to accept someone who was in the Illinois state Senate three years ago, and a community organizer before that, as experienced enough to lead the country during these difficult times? Does the fact that he lived abroad as a child make him more qualified than someone who lived in the White House for eight years, and who has four more years of Senate experience than he does?
What does it mean that, in retrospect, Barack was “right” about the war and Hillary was “wrong”? Is that how voters – Democratic primary voters – will ultimately see it?
As a Clinton supporter, I would make the argument that it was George W. Bush who was wrong, not Hillary Clinton. Sen. Clinton gave the president the authority to use force in Iraq based on intelligence, uncontested at the time, to which she was privy and Obama was not, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that he was poised to use. That is what justified giving him the authority to use force. But it was George W. Bush’s administration that was not only partly responsible for the inaccurate information, but that also made the decision to give up on diplomacy and inspections and go directly to force. Nothing in the congressional vote required that.
Being in Washington may be no guarantee of getting it right on foreign policy, but the fact that George Bush seems to have been so easily manipulated by the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Neocon/Intelligence establishment suggests, as with Kennedy’s sign-off on the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, that not having much Washington experience can be an even bigger problem.
If I were Obama, I’d worry more about the pundits and pundettes criticizing me and give less weight to my appeal in focus groups. The problem with focus groups conducted right after early debates is that people don’t necessarily end up where they start off. They don’t always know when someone has made a mistake, particularly when the moderator doesn’t follow up, until they read about it afterward. That’s where the talking heads come in.
Remember Howard Dean? At this time four years ago, he was the darling and the frontrunner. But there were those, even then, who questioned whether he had the necessary background and experience to deal with complicated foreign policy issues. By December, the press, and his own campaign manager, had started chronicling his mistakes. As the list grew, his support plummeted. And he was “right” about the war, too.
Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and author.