If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.
As I wrote on Monday, Clinton threw down the gauntlet to the president on foreign policy in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. No one doubted that she would at some point revert to the more centrist views on the world that contrasted with those of Obama during their 2008 primary battle. But Clinton’s willingness to judge the president’s decisions harshly seemed to mark a turning point in their complicated relationship. When she rightly damned Obama’s Syria policy as a “failure” that led directly to the current ISIS catastrophe in Iraq, that demonstrated her belief that she needed to distance herself from an increasingly unpopular incumbent heading into 2016.
Given the chaos that has erupted across the globe on the president’s watch, more distance from him would make sense for a Democrat who may not want the voters to think they are casting a ballot for a third term for Obama in 2016. But once the White House starting to push back strongly against her criticism and some in the liberal base of the party began to seethe about her flipping back to a “neoconservative” line about Iraq and in support of Israel, Clinton blinked.
Rather than stick to her guns and dare the left to try and oppose her, Clinton was quick to try and patch up the quarrel with the White House, calling the president and reportedly suggesting that the pair “hug it out” when they each other at a Martha’s Vineyard soiree they are both attending this week.
Maintaining some kind of détente with a sitting president who is the unchallenged leader of the Democrats and the idol of its base makes sense. But there was something craven in the unseemly speed with which Clinton sought to diffuse the controversy. Try as her team of media spinners might, there’s no disguising the fact that her attempt to cut straight to general-election campaign tactics without first having to curtsy the left-wing base of the Democrats isn’t going over very well.
There may be no credible Democratic alternatives currently willing to put their names up in opposition to Clinton right now. Whether they love the Clintons or not, most Democrats have bought into her compelling narrative about being the first female president as the best way to hold onto the White House. The Clintons’ ability to raise money and play hardball politics has also intimidated potential candidates into staying out of the race. But, as I also noted yesterday, that won’t stop liberal outliers like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders from mounting symbolic ideological protest candidacies that could prove troublesome even if no one on the left thinks he should be president.
But the Hillary broadside, followed by her quick retreat, has reminded many in her party that she may not be the political colossus that her admirers in the mainstream press insist she has become.
Like her 2008 candidacy, Clinton’s 2016 “inevitability” is based on the idea that she is so strong that no one other than a marginal figure like Sanders would dare oppose her. But liberals are starting to recall that while Barack Obama’s personal political magic was the main cause of her downfall in 2008, it was only made possible by the fact that most Democrats disliked her centrist foreign policy views.
While we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time Clinton seeks to create more daylight between herself and the man who was her boss for four years, her decision to once again play the person with adult foreign-policy views is bound to foment anger on the left. That means that it might be a mistake to think that Sanders is the only Democrat who believes a leftist challenge to Clinton makes sense. The more people that think about that, the more likely it will be that someone may step forward who could hurt her more than an avowed socialist. Clinton hopes this kerfuffle will only be a blip on the radar in her inevitable long march to the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But it might also be the moment when the 2008 dynamic that sunk her starts to kick in again even without an Obama to take the former first lady down.