With more than two years to go before the start of the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton is leaving little to chance as she gears up for her next try for the big prize. Her slow-motion re-entry into the public square after a few months out of sight after leaving the State Department has been prudently crafted to both maximize the sense of inevitability about her candidacy and to discourage possible Democratic rivals like Vice President Biden. So far it seems to be working well, with possible left-wing challengers like Senator Elizabeth Warren renouncing any interest in the nomination while the former first lady stays comfortably above the current political mess into which her former boss, President Obama, is currently mired. As an article in the New York Times’s Fashion and Style section noted today, she has been a constant presence at charitable events around the Big Apple hobnobbing with contributors and showing her star power. But the problem with lurking around the edges of the debate is that difficult issues have a way of popping up and complicating even the most careful plan of action.
That was illustrated as much by what wasn’t said at yet another fashionable event held in New York Wednesday night as what was on the agenda at a tribute to the late Richard Holbrooke. As Politico reports, Clinton was a featured speaker and was asked questions by a chosen interviewer, but somehow avoided saying a word on the most important foreign-policy question of the day: Iran. That she would seek to stay out of the current debate about the Obama administration’s decision to pursue détente with the Iranian regime is understandable. While it could be argued that the distance between the deal signed by her successor John Kerry and the dilatory efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program undertaken on her watch is not so great, it is still a clear departure from the positions she enunciated on the threat both before and after her time at Foggy Bottom. So while she is probably uninterested in publicly disagreeing with Obama and Kerry on Iran (and may, in fact, agree with them), she is equally wary of carrying the burden of the likely failure of these efforts into the next election. Though an Iranian bomb would damage Obama’s legacy, it could cripple Clinton’s attempt to use her foreign-policy portfolio as ammunition in 2016.
Right now, Democrats, especially those up for reelection in 2014, are primarily worried about the impact of ObamaCare on their future. If the disastrous rollout and the president’s loss of credibility aren’t transformed by the middle of next year, Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment will be an albatross weighing down Democrats. But though many on both sides of the aisle are concerned about the rush to legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, barring some unforeseen disaster, foreign policy isn’t likely to play a role in the midterms. That’s also the standard assumption about presidential elections, and 2016 may not be an exception to that rule. Though some think an Iranian breakout to nuclear capacity is something Americans shouldn’t worry about and won’t become much of a political issue even if it happens, anyone who will be running for president in part on their foreign-policy record will have much to answer for if Iran gets a bomb sometime in the next three years.
The danger for Hillary, as the sole credible Democratic candidate in the next cycle, is that Iran won’t wait until President Obama is safely out of the White House to make its move toward a nuclear weapon. If that happens, she will be put on the spot and have to either defend Obama’s decisions or attempt to differentiate her own record on Iran from what immediately followed her departure from the State Department. At that point, and unlike Democrats in 2008, Clinton won’t be able to simply repeat the mantra about stopping Iran and leaving all options on the table. If Iran has already hoodwinked the United States and exploited the weak terms of the agreement Obama has signed on to, Clinton will face the danger of being portrayed as seeming weak in the one area on which she has always attempted to look strong.
Thus, as much as Obama and Kerry have bet the store on the notion that Iran’s leadership has become moderate, Clinton will have even more at stake in the outcome of the upcoming negotiations and Tehran’s willingness to abide by any agreement they’ve signed. That has to be an uncomfortable feeling for Clinton, and it will be increasingly difficult for her to dodge the issue of Iran as we get closer to 2016. Though it isn’t likely that anything short of an act of God can derail her coronation as the Democratic presidential candidate, an Iran disaster could keep her out of the White House.