Did you think the seemingly endless 2012 presidential election started way too soon? If so, you weren’t alone. But we may think back on that long slog as a brief interlude long before we get to November 2016. Though the discussion about the next presidential election began even before Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, the 2016 race may have begun for all intents and purposes yesterday when the first official endorsement was announced. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said she was backing Hillary Clinton in an official statement that was posted on the ReadyforHillary.com website. McCaskill’s backing for Clinton is hardly a surprise but the timing may indicate a deliberate strategy on the part of the former first lady and secretary of state. The announcement may be the first of a series of high-profile endorsements that will occur at regular intervals over the course of the next year as Clinton seeks to do something that only incumbent presidents can generally aspire to: clear the field of all serious competition among Democrats.
Clinton’s not the only likely presidential contender making noises these days. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who shapes up as a first-tier candidate for the Republican nod, has been concentrating on his re-election race this year. But this morning on “Morning Joe” he showed he was thinking 2016 by taking a shot at President Obama for what seemed like the first time since Hurricane Sandy when he mocked his belated “charm offensive” with the GOP.
But both Clinton and Christie (whose late night TV appearances have kept him in the public eye even on days when he’s not making news), might want to pause and consider whether their high profile this early in the run-up to 2016 is entirely a good thing. Clinton’s favorability ratings have dropped drastically since leaving the State Department and returning, albeit sparingly, back into the political fray. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll may indicate that the best thing for a 2016 contender would be to keep their profile low at this incredibly early stage of the contest.
If Hillary Clinton thought the soft glow of the good press she received while roaming the globe to no great effect during her four years as secretary of state would last until her planned 2016 coronation as president, it’s time to for her to rethink her strategy. Public anger about the lies that were told about the Benghazi terror attack as well as her failure to provide adequate security to diplomats that were placed in harm’s way was bad enough. But the latest State Department scandal linked to her office is the sort of thing that could begin the process by which Clinton’s status as the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee starts to unravel.
As CBS first reported yesterday, investigation into a series of cases involving sexual misconduct by both ambassadors as well as security personnel were called off on the orders of senior State Department officials on Clinton’s watch. Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills gave the order in one case while other top-level officials stopped other probes. The confirmation of the cases in an internal State Department memo shows a pattern of sexual misconduct—including on the part of those charged with protecting Clinton—that is troubling. But the manner in which higher-ups consistently suppressed these embarrassing investigations is even more worrisome. While Clinton is not personally named as the one ordering the cover-ups, the links between the secretary and those committing the bad behavior as well as those shutting down the probes are clear.
Straight news reporting often produces humorous understatement. The reporting on President Obama’s new nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations–a position Obama had earlier made a Cabinet-level post–and her controversial past statements certainly resulted in such understatement. One example was the Times of Israel’s write-up of the nomination, which began: “A decade-old video of Samantha Power calling for the US to shift Israeli military aid to Ramallah and to deploy forces to protect Palestinians from IDF troops may prove a hurdle in the UN envoy nominee’s confirmation process.”
It is fair to say that calling for the U.S. to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by installing a U.S.-led military occupation of Israel is a controversial thing to say–not to mention uncommonly stupid, even in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which produces a tremendous amount of stupidity from Israel’s antagonists. Some will defend Power by saying she gave this quote back in 2002. That is not a defense, because that was when Israel was defending itself from the Palestinian terror campaign of the second intifada and Power was suggesting the introduction of the U.S. military on the side of the terror masters. But the quote is actually worse than it seems, and here it is in full:
The news that Susan Rice will be named to replace Tom Donilon as President Obama’s national security adviser is not surprising in the least–indeed, it was close to a sure thing as soon as Rice’s name was dropped from consideration to be secretary of state. But there is irony aplenty in this promotion, and it explains why the New York Times is wrong to cast the appointment as “a defiant gesture to Republicans.” The Times joins many commentators on the left in being completely confused by the complicated politics of l’affaire Rice, so it’s worth reviewing.
Rice’s stock began to drop because of her own attempt to raise her profile. When Hillary Clinton was permitted by the Obama administration to evade accountability for her failures that led to the Benghazi terror attack, the administration needed someone to go on the Sunday morning political talk shows and push false talking points to mislead the American people on the causes of the attack. Rice was happy to step in, hoping to prove herself to the Obama White House and increase her chances vis-à-vis John Kerry to succeed Clinton at Foggy Bottom. But the false talking points proved understandably controversial, and put Rice at the center of the storm. What happened next is what seems to have the Times so baffled.
In discussing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects, media commentators have made a common and constant error, which I tried to point out repeatedly. They noted Clinton’s high approval ratings as secretary of state, and suggested those numbers buoyed her chances in 2016. But her approval numbers at State were unimpressive: her predecessors had those numbers too, and some had approval ratings even higher than Clinton. Secretary of state is viewed as an apolitical position and the face of the American government abroad, and as such earns inflated poll numbers.
I pointed out that those numbers not only don’t portend future political success (anyone remember President Colin Powell, who left office with a 77 percent approval rating at State?), but they would also come down to earth once Clinton left Foggy Bottom and began to re-enter the political arena. And so they have. Quinnipiac’s new survey finds Clinton’s favorability rating dropping to 52 percent (from Quinnipiac’s previous finding of 61). Her once-daunting lead over hypothetical challengers has narrowed to a surmountable 8 percent over Rand Paul and Jeb Bush.
And all that comes before Clinton actually begins campaigning–that is, if she decides to run. It would be difficult to beat her in a Democratic primary, but even the typical primary campaign process would expose some of her flaws as a candidate, as Keith Koffler writes in Politico. Clinton is hardworking, determined, sharp, and well connected, but that hasn’t stopped her from being, in Koffler’s determination, “the most overrated politician of her generation.” Koffler gets it exactly right when he notes that after her failure to produce results in health care, “The rest of Clinton’s record reads like an excruciatingly long CV that seeks to overwhelm with content but out of which nothing particularly impressive pops out.”
It’s been more than 48 hours since the Anthony Weiner reboot began, but so far the indications are that the plight of the middle class in New York City is about the last thing anybody is talking about. Instead, the main topic of discussion about Weiner’s candidacy is what everyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last two years always knew it would be: the bizarre sexting scandal that forced his resignation from Congress in 2011.
It should be no surprise that we’re still talking about the fact that Weiner’s career was buried under a deluge of national derision about his habit of sending lewd pictures of his body parts to women and the disgust over his weeks of lies and false accusations that his political opponents had concocted the story in order to discredit him. After all, it’s not just the tabloids like the New York Post and the New York Daily News that are engaging in an orgy of front page headlines with puns at Weiner’s expense. Even the ultra-liberal public radio station WNYC was quizzing him about his problems. Fellow New York Democrat Governor Andrew Cuomo summed it up for most members of his party as well as the citizens of Gotham when he replied to a reporter’s suggestion that Weiner might win by simply saying that if so, “Shame on us.”
But what is just as interesting as the circus freak atmosphere of Weiner’s campaign is another angle of it that was explored this morning by the New York Times. Rather than just being the suffering yet faithful spouse in this drama, the Times claims Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin is the driving force behind his attempted comeback. Indeed the paper claims the main reason why some Democratic consultants have even considered joining his campaign is because they feel doing so will give them access to Abedin and a leg up toward a job with the next presidential campaign of her personal patron and surrogate mother, Hillary Clinton. That means that rather than merely being a prop in her husband’s soap opera whose presence is intended to deflect outrage about his personality defects, it is Abedin who is actually the more interesting subject for scrutiny.
Nine months after the terrorist attack in Benghazi that cost four American lives, we’re finally finding out who it was that the State Department thinks is responsible for the debacle: the middle managers. Josh Rogin’s exclusive interview at the Daily Beast with the only person to lose his job over the tragedy doesn’t tell us much about why Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others were left without security in the face of clear danger from an al-Qaeda affiliate. But it does tell us everything we need to know about how Hillary Clinton’s State Department functioned.
Benghazi is one of the worst disasters in American diplomatic history, but the sum total of accountability for it is limited to the career of Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) who was placed on administrative leave in December after the now-famous Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by Thomas Pickering issued its report. Pickering didn’t bother interviewing the person in charge of the department—Secretary Clinton—but according to Rogin’s sources, Maxwell was consigned to perdition for not reading his daily intelligence reports. If so, perhaps he deserves his fate even though Maxwell claims he had “no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi.” That is something that cannot be said of others, including the secretary, who sent Stevens on what proved to be a fatal mission. Yet what comes across loud and clear in the piece is that what happened at Foggy Bottom in the aftermath of the debacle was that a middle manager was made to walk the plank while all senior personnel were spared from the consequences of the mistakes that were made.
There was a running joke in the fall of 2008 that John McCain should simply re-air Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. phone call” ad, which highlighted Barack Obama’s lack of experience and meager knowledge of world affairs, and just tack on “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message” at the end of the ad. The point was that thanks to the bitter primary battle between the Clintons and Obama, Democrats had already developed the most effective lines of attack against Obama, and Republicans needed only to nod their heads in agreement.
Something similar is taking place amid the several Obama administration scandals that have surfaced almost simultaneously. (There has been new information on Benghazi, but the issue itself isn’t new; the IRS and AP phone records scandals, in contrast, hit less than a week apart.) Both Democrats and Republicans are raising the prospect that the GOP could get carried away or bungle their response to the scandals–surely a possibility. One way to prevent that, however, would be to simply echo the way Obama’s supporters have tried to defend him.
On Friday, I wrote about what seemed to be a solid wall of liberal indifference to the recent revelations about Benghazi. The chorus of “move along, there’s nothing to see here” admonitions from Democrats and liberal journalists lacked credibility. As Peter Wehner said this morning, White House spokesman Jay Carney’s disgraceful “no regrets” performance Friday afternoon showed just how desperate the administration has become. But its determination to keep stonewalling and denying was rooted in a not unreasonable conviction: So long as the Democrats and liberal journalists close ranks behind the president, and more importantly, the reputation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Benghazi will be viewed as a partisan club used by Republicans rather than a genuine scandal.
But while most in the chattering classes are sticking to the new talking points, a prominent exception today marks a significant crack in that heretofore-solid wall of liberal opinion. Conservatives rightly disdain Maureen Dowd as the New York Times’s queen of snark, a writer whose work has long become the byword for pointless nastiness and deeply unserious takes on the news of the day that gives a bad name to political hatchet work. Yet, harking back to her salad days in the 1990s when she earned a reputation as the rare liberal who was willing to challenge Bill Clinton’s cult of personality, Dowd has today written what may be the first sign that Hillary is not going to be able to escape accountability for 9/11/12 and the cover-up that followed that tragedy.
The testimony of three State Department whistle blowers raises fours issues regarding Benghazi:
(1) Who pushed the notion that a YouTube video rather than premeditated terrorism was the cause of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi? Was this simply State Department and White House spin or, even worse, is it possible that Secretary of State Clinton was so insulated in a bubble that she did not understand the threat posed by Islamist extremism?
(2) Who turned down the consulate’s request for additional security?
(3) Would the U.S. military have had time to respond had they been called at the earliest opportunity?
(4) Who ordered the State Department to circle its wagons and suggested to employees that they not speak with congressional investigators? Such actions suggest fear of the truth rather than a desire to determine what went wrong.
Eight months after al-Qaeda-linked terrorists murdered four Americans in Benghazi, liberal talking heads, columnists and editorial writers don’t need Hillary Clinton’s State Department mafia or the Obama spin team in the West Wing to give them their talking points about what happened. They’ve figured out on their own that discussion of what led to this disaster and the administration’s furious attempt to deceive the American people afterwards will do more than undermine President Obama’s credibility. The more we learn about this affair, the less invulnerable the person they want to succeed Obama looks. That’s why despite the drip-drip of information leaking out about the prelude, most liberals are still portraying the tragedy as a trumped-up non-scandal that has been blown out of proportion.
It’s true that it is going to be difficult for Benghazi to become a front-burner issue so long as the New York Times editorial page pooh-poohs it as a Republican “obsession” or leading columnists like the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson puts it down as a “witch hunt.” Like legislation, scandals need bipartisan support from all sectors of the media in order to generate the sort of political crisis that impacts the future of politicians. Yet the problem with TIME magazine’s Joe Klein’s “Republicans are chasing their tails” over Benghazi talking point is that there is already enough known about the decisions taken to send Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi or the failure of the United States to have forces available to rescue him and his colleagues, and especially about the politically-motivated lies that were told about the event after the event, to provide fodder for investigators for weeks of future hearings. It may be that congressional Republicans are acting like they smell blood rather than appearing as impartial investigators, but they are no guiltier of that than any other participants in a D.C. inquisition. So long as we have journalists, like ABC’s Jonathan Karl, following up on the work of the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes about the damaging trail of email evidence about doctored talking points, the pressure for a special committee to investigate Benghazi with subpoena power will escalate.
National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, in writing about the House hearings on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, said, “Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not – by a long shot — is a scandal yet.”
To understand why this judgment is wrong, it’s helpful to keep in mind that weeks after the attack the Obama administration claimed the cause of the violence was a spontaneous demonstration, not pre-planned attacks; that the cause of the demonstrations was an anti-Muslim YouTube video; and that there was no terrorist involvement in the attacks.
Now compare that narrative with some of what we learned based on the testimonies of Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya before he became the top American diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered, as well as Mark Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
1. Mr. Hicks confirmed that he received a call from Ambassador Stevens shortly before he died. Stevens said to Hicks, “Greg, we’re under attack.” (Not, “There’s a demonstration outside the diplomatic outpost.”) Mr. Hicks also confirmed that the night of the attacks the Libyan president, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, called him and said these attacks were led by Islamic extremists with possible terror links. Five days after the attack the Libyan president said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the attacks were “pre-planned” and “pre-determined.” And Mr. Hicks told the House committee, “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that this was an attack. No protest.” Mr. Hicks also emphasized there was “no report” from anyone on the ground that that there was a demonstration.
Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.
Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.
Stephen Hayes’s scoop on Benghazi is probably more significant than it may have seemed at first glance, even though he didn’t provide much in the way of new information. His article was built around the emails released by a group of Republican House committee chairmen after a congressional investigation into the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 anniversary attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. Those emails detailed the efforts of the administration to craft talking points that downplayed or omitted information the administration already knew about the role of Islamic terrorist actors in the attacks, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
The resulting talking points were designed to mislead the American public about what happened, because then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s leadership at Foggy Bottom was marked by negligence and incompetence, and the new talking points were written to exonerate her. But Hayes provided a key piece of information: names. Specifically, he revealed the authors of some of those emails. As a result, it’s far easier to piece together what happened. Hayes explains that State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland raised concerns that the original talking points too accurately portrayed the incompetence at the highest levels of State. Hayes continues:
The Washington Post’s flattering profile of Joe Biden that was published today didn’t tell us much we didn’t already know about the vice president and the consuming ambition that has driven his long career in politics. The big question hanging over the piece is whether Biden will run for president in 2016. But the only line you really had to read in the piece was the one attributed to several of his friends. While acknowledging the long odds facing him if he chose to run for president whether or not Hillary Clinton runs, “For Biden, who has been running for office since his 20s, not running would feel unnatural.”
Unnatural or not, the Post makes clear what has been increasingly apparent: Clinton’s entry into the field would make a Biden candidacy highly unlikely. Though the memory of her “inevitable” election to the presidency in 2008 must not be forgotten, Clinton’s absence from the political fray during four years as a popular if ineffectual secretary of state has given her the kind of commanding position that hasn’t been seen in presidential politics since Dwight Eisenhower bided his time waiting for his opportunity during the Truman administration. The former first lady may not be a hero of the greatest war in history, but her potential to be the first woman president gives her the kind of politically correct status in her party that will make it all but impossible for any serious Democrat to oppose her. That’s why all the speculation about Biden is largely pointless.
If you listen to some Democrats, you’ll walk away thinking the race for their presidential nomination in 2016 will be about as exciting as a matchup between the Super Bowl champions and a team from the Little Sisters of the Poor. Hillary Clinton is not just the favorite to be their next standard-bearer. Those who claim her entry will clear the field of serious challengers are probably right. The odds facing any Democrat who would dare take on the Clinton machine will be long and raising money for such a challenge will not be easy. Having patiently waited her turn after being derailed by Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton is in position to portray any Democrat who stands against her as someone who is attempting to prevent the country from electing its first female president. Clinton will not have as easy a time in the general election, but barring the emergence of another Obama-like phenomenon (something that only happens once in a generation, if that often), it’s hard to envision anyone else as the Democrats’ nominee.
But what happens if Clinton doesn’t run? That would open the field to the likes of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, not to mention Vice President Biden, whose lust for the Oval Office appears to have only grown with his proximity to the top job in the last four years. Yet those who assume that one of those three, or someone like them, will rise to the top are forgetting why all of them were assumed to have no chance against Clinton: they’re widely considered to be duds. So if for some as-yet-unforeseen reason Clinton decides to pass on another “inevitable” race for the presidency, Democrats will be looking around for another choice. And one of them will undoubtedly be the senator that her colleagues dubbed “Tracey Flick” during her introduction to Congress: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.
In December, I wrote about the habits that keep the Democratic Party’s bench noticeably shallow. In contrast to the GOP, which is currently hooked on primary competition, the Democrats have relied on their own ruling class, going so far as to replace Barney Frank–who finally gave up his seat after two decades and helping to induce the disastrous housing crisis at the end of his controversial career–with a Kennedy. This was after Democrats had a few years earlier tried to replace Hillary Clinton with a Kennedy.
Now Democrats seem ready to anoint Clinton their nominee for 2016, just 15 years after her husband left the presidency. (To be fair, George W. Bush was elected less than eight years after his father left, but Hillary Clinton shared the White House with Bill Clinton during his presidency and even took part in policy development. So you could say Hillary will aim for the presidential nomination 15 years after she left the White House.)
In the last few days Washington experienced what could only be called Hillary Week, as the decision of the former first lady to give her first public speeches since stepping down as secretary of state sent the chattering classes into ecstasy. With 2016 fever already in full bloom only a few months after President Obama’s re-election, the anticipation that Clinton will be the next Democratic standard bearer is intense. While it would be madness for any presidential contender to declare their intentions three years in advance of the race, the presence of a claque of organized cheerleaders bearing printed signs declaring that they were “Ready for Hillary” at her first appearance this week removed much doubt that the formidable Clinton campaign machine was already starting to rev itself up.
However, the assumption that Clinton is the inevitable Democratic nominee is getting some pushback. At the Washington Free Beacon, Matthew Continetti has written a column detailing all the reasons why the notion that Hillary is a can’t-miss candidate may be far overstating her strength, and much of it is both smart and persuasive. As he rightly notes, eight years ago pundits were making the same assumptions about Clinton and the 2008 presidential election which, as we all know, turned out to be somebody else’s historic election.
But while I agree with Continetti that Clinton is not a shoo-in to be the next president, I don’t share his skepticism about her chances of winning her party’s nomination. The Democratic Party has become, as Seth wrote last week, a highly disciplined operation with little of the organized anarchy that once characterized it. The reason why many people are speaking of a Clinton candidacy clearing the field of potential challengers is because that is exactly the governing dynamic of Democrats in the age of Obama. If she runs, the odds of a formidable challenger emerging are minimal.
In my earlier post on the Obama White House turf wars that continually impede the administration’s ability to form coherent and thoughtful policy prescriptions, I mentioned Vali Nasr’s piece in Foreign Policy and his evident sympathies for the Hillary Clinton wing of the administration over the Obama wing. If Clinton does indeed run for president in 2016, as many expect her to, stories like these will serve as the building blocks of her campaign: she shared in the administration’s successes, the storyline will go, but the failures only occurred because nobody listened to her.
That storyline is bunk, and no one should read the administration’s foreign policy failures as stemming from an unwillingness to let Clinton run the show. Though Clinton undoubtedly showed better judgment on some issues–Syria comes to mind–her time as secretary of state was punctuated by two telling episodes. The most famous was the Benghazi tragedy, which arose in part because Clinton’s management and organizational abilities at Foggy Bottom were atrocious, and she left the State Department a mess. But the other incident was what many considered to be a success: the release by Chinese authorities of the dissident Chen Guangcheng after Clinton intervened. Yet as I wrote last June, we subsequently learned that Clinton’s negotiations had failed, and that what spurred Chen’s release was the public hearing congressional Republicans held on the case, which brought unwanted attention to Chinese human rights abuses. Clinton’s “smart diplomacy,” or “quiet diplomacy” as it’s sometimes called, was a dismal failure.
All throughout the 2012 presidential campaign season, we heard complaints from those covering the election about how nasty and trivial the campaign had become. It would often be compared wistfully to a bygone era of American politics before social media brought the twin plagues of pettiness and excessive informality on the unsuspecting American voter. And while it can be fun to take a stroll down memory lane, the youthful political press is indulging its nostalgia in an odd way: by reprising the 2008 election.
At least that’s the impression one gets reading the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s effect on the emerging field of Democrats seeking to succeed Barack Obama. Politico reports today: