The first week of January hasn’t been very kind to someone will be forced to defend the foreign policy of the current administration. Hillary Clinton does not appear to have much to worry about when it comes to winning the Democratic Party presidential nomination. But the Clinton camp is keenly aware that her chances of winning in November will depend on two factors. One is the ability to generate the sort of massive turnout among minority voters that carried Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012. The other is maintaining enough of her credibility as a credible commander-in-chief so as to remind voters that they’d be taking a terrible chance if they voted for any of her potential Republican opponents.
Hillary’s ability to match Obama’s appeal to minorities is doubtful, but their level of turnout will probably be determined more by the identity of her competition more than her own virtues. However, the credibility issue is something that relates directly to Clinton’s record and stands. And it is on that score that the past few days have been a brutal beginning to 2016.
In the last few days, the stock market has staggered as a result of market turmoil in China. North Korea may have tested some kind of Hydrogen bomb or, at least, a new twist on its expanding nuclear arsenal. Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to be escalating their old rivalry into a competition for control of the Persian Gulf that reduces the already slim chances for a united front against ISIS and actually raises the possibility of expanded conflict in the region. ISIS terrorists have struck in Europe and those inspired by them terrorize America. Meanwhile, Russia maintains its beachhead in Syria, propping up the despotic Assad regime while doing little to fight Islamist terror, not to mention occupying large parts of Ukraine.
That’s a formidable list of troubles for the Obama administration to deal with, but right now it’s not just the crew in the West Wing who are twitching nervously as all of the assumptions that the president carried into office seven years ago unravel. Rather, it is the person forced to carry the burden of incumbency into the fall election.
Let’s acknowledge that Democratic optimism about 2016 is not unfounded. They have a built-in Electoral College advantage and changing demographics that make America less white and more Latino are huge obstacles to GOP success. Indeed, despite their misgivings about Hillary Clinton’s personal credibility and her poor political skills when compared to Obama and her husband Bill, most Democrats still think those factors, as well as the possibility of the Republicans nominating a candidate out of touch with the political center, gives them a certain path to victory.
But the assumption that the 2016 election will play out in the same way as the previous two is rooted in wishful thinking, not cold political analysis. Each election is different and if, as now seems increasingly likely, Americans will go to the polls this year worrying about an increasingly chaotic world, that may offset many of the Democrats’ natural advantages.
But as the Democratic candidate, Hillary will be running as the stand-in for an Obama third term as, in much the same manner that George H.W. Bush did for Ronald Reagan in 1988. As Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary was the face of American foreign policy. Granted, it appears that she had little influence on major decisions in a top-down administration where sycophants are valued more highly by the president than those who might challenge his assumptions. But it’s no use Clinton trying to pretend that things would have been better if Obama had listened more to her. She’s stuck defending a lackluster war on terror and a global economy heading south.
Even worse is the fact that those issues where she seemed to have more input like Russia and China, the implosion of U.S. foreign policy is complete. Even worse, even allied publications like the New York Times haven’t failed to notice that the North Korea mess may have been exacerbated by the “strategic patience” that Clinton preached with regard to Pyongyang.
This goes deeper than the difficulty that any Democrat running in a year where an eight-year Democratic incumbent is presiding over a weak economy and a nuclear deal with Iran that is already being violated and leading to Middle East chaos. Clinton needs more than a weak or bombastic GOP opponent in order to be seen as a credible president. While Obama’s historic status and political magic touch ensured that will survive any of theses crises, Hillary needs a year of peace, quiet, and prosperity to give her a chance to lead the Democrats to a third straight victory. Chaos in the Middle East with Islam terrorism the rest of the world, an Iran deal that is already unraveling, North Korean nukes, an aggressive Russia, and, even worse, the chance that the anemic recovery will melt away altogether threaten Clinton’s hopes.
We may be a long way from the fall campaign with plenty of time for events to stabilize in a manner that will be beneficial to Clinton. But right now, the Democrats should be extremely wary of assumptions that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or some other Republican will save them. The only person who can truly assure Clinton of an easy path to the White House is Barack Obama. But, as she knows all too well, he is not a man who likes to admit mistakes or change course. If that remains the case that, with so much going wrong around the world, then Hillary may be the one who pays for the president’s mistakes.