After getting a good scare from a challenge from Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has regained a sense of inevitability about her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination. The reason for this is partly due to the inherent implausibility of Sanders’ candidacy as well as Clinton’s improvement as a candidate after a series of awful public blunders largely related to an inability to explain the Clinton Cash charges or her email scandal. But if, despite their misgivings about her honesty and her political skills, Democrats are falling in line behind Clinton, it is also because the emergence of terrorism and foreign policy as the key issues in the 2016 election has undermined any sense that Sanders can exploit a left-wing populist insurgency against a friend of Wall Street and the Clinton Foundation’s large donors. But their reliance on the former secretary of state’s resume to ensure that the Democrats aren’t seen as the party associated with a failed war against ISIS may be a mistake.
Clinton committed a terrible blunder at the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday night when she said that the administration was “right where we need to be” in the fight against ISIS. After working hard in recent months to create some daylight between the president’s faltering war against ISIS and her own positions, that phrase fatally links her to Obama’s record on terror at a time when the majority of Americans correctly understand that the U.S. lacks a strategy to defeat the terrorists. She then went on to make a demonstrably false claim about Donald Trump that enabled the GOP candidate to spend his time on the Sunday morning talk shows correctly pointing our her mendacity and playing the victim.
Both statements are proof that a) She may have an advantage on foreign policy against Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but that wouldn’t apply against a plausible Republican, and b) Her supposedly improved political skills may not be as improved as her handlers and Democratic Party loyalists hope.
The “right where we need to be” line is the kind of blunder that Republicans pray for and which Clinton seems incapable of avoiding. It was already going to be difficult for Clinton to distance herself from a president she loyally served for four years and who remains deeply popular with the Democratic base. Obama is desperately doubling down on a policy that is demonstrably failing to topple the Islamic State’s caliphate where it rules much of Iraq and Syria or to stop the group from exporting terror abroad to Europe or the United States.
It is understood that Clinton’s goal was to carefully navigate this issue by distancing herself from the current mess while not saying or doing anything that might convince the Democratic base that she was stabbing Obama in the back. To accomplish that goal she had to remind voters that she was the real tough guy in the Cabinet room during Obama’s first term and that the president didn’t always take her advice. There’s some truth to that assertion since we know that in this top-down administration Obama listens to no one but sycophants who tell him what he wants to hear. Clinton was in that sense just a highly placed bureaucrat who carried out the president’s orders. But that doesn’t jibe with her attempt to portray herself as the responsible adult who is ready to be commander-in-chief.
Tying herself to an administration policy that has no strategy or hope for victory over ISIS removes the chance that anyone can get to her left. But it also renders all of her previous work to carve out a separate identity on the terror war null and void. Any Democrat was always going to be linked to Obama, for good or ill, in 2016. But now Hillary is also tied to a war policy that she knows isn’t working and that the president is too arrogant and stubborn to even consider altering.
As for her comments on Trump, it takes real talent to make the Donald look sympathetic, but that’s what she did. It’s one thing to assert that Trump’s ill-considered remarks about banning Muslim travel is helping ISIS mobilize recruits. That’s actually a highly debatable assertion since ISIS’s real attraction is the sense that it is beating the U.S. and that as the “strong horse” in the Middle East those who jump on board are picking a winner. When ISIS sends out recruitment videos it features its own atrocities beheading infidel non-believers, enslaving and raping the women of religious minorities and conquering territory, not Trump sound bytes. It is those activities that make Islamist-leaning Muslims around the world (including the U.S.) join their despicable cause.
But even if Hillary persists in reading from Obama White House talking points based on myths about rampant Islamophobia helping ISIS, there was no reason for her to elaborate on them. When people analyze her persistently faulty political skills, the conversation often turns to discussions of likability (“likeable enough”), or the very different personality of her infinitely more talented husband. But maybe the real problem isn’t so much her total lack of charm as it is the little voice in her head that always seems to tell her to embroider upon the truth. Just as a more appealing personality wouldn’t have prevented her from claiming to have been subjected to sniper fire in Bosnia, a bit more of Bill’s charisma wouldn’t have stopped her from speaking as if she knew for a certainty that ISIS is promoting Trump videos on social media. She knew that she didn’t know that, but yet she said it both times and was easily caught in new instances of mendacity.
You don’t have to like or agree with Trump to observe that Clinton made him sound almost reasonable while refuting her on Sunday morning. Nor did it help her cause when leading Clinton surrogate John Podesta echoed her unsubstantiated accusation.
So rather than confirm Democrats’ faith in her invincibility, all Clinton did this weekend was to remind them that she’s still a terrible candidate. Head to head matchups shows she’s still beating Trump and Ted Cruz but losing to other Republicans like Marco Rubio. But if Democratic hopes of retaining the White House rest on Hillary’s ability to plot a wise course on terrorism or to avoid more blunders, then they are in bigger trouble than they think.