Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russian reset

Clinton’s Advantage over Biden: She Got Out in Time

The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

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The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

Those who dismiss the vice presidency as a good source of presidential candidates often note that only four of the 47 men who have held the nation’s second office were elected president upon the retirement of the chief executive with whom they served. Yet the 1/12 ratio is a highly misleading measure. Nine of the 47 vice presidents became president through the death or resignation of their predecessor. Accordingly, they could not have been elected directly from the vice presidency. Nor could most of the seven vice presidents who died in office or the two who resigned. (Yes, these numbers include George Clinton and John C. Calhoun, who theoretically could have been elected president before serving a second vice presidential term with a new president. But being passed over for James Madison and Andrew Jackson respectively is hardly a disgrace.) Of the remaining 29 vice presidents, 12 (including Biden) were effectively blocked because a president of their party with whom they served sought another term.

Of the 17 other sitting vice presidents, eight were chosen as a national presidential candidate and four were elected. So once the denominator is reduced by eliminating those sitting VPs who essentially could not have succeeded their predecessor by election, some 47% of America’s sitting vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency (8/17), and 24% of the eligible pool were elected (4/17). Of the nine others, some, like Dick Cheney, credibly disclaimed any presidential ambition.

Though the modern era would seem to be less hospitable to sitting vice presidents than some earlier eras, Goldstein writes that this isn’t so: “since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency following the retirement of the incumbent (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) won the nomination and were either elected (Bush) or ran dead-even races for president against formidable opponents.”

Additionally, he writes, we tend to use arguments against the vice president that we don’t against others. We like to say, for example, that Americans are more likely to elect a governor as president. But we don’t talk about all the governors who don’t become president, or the odds that the successful governor-turned-president had to overcome.

I don’t intend to argue with Goldstein’s numbers. But I would say that one aspect of this that directly affects Biden’s chances has to do with the popularity and perceived success of the administration in which the veep serves. Look at the vice presidents Goldstein mentions. Nixon served Eisenhower, who left office (via Gallup) with a 59 percent approval rating. George H.W. Bush served Reagan, who left office with a 63 percent approval rating. Gore served Bill Clinton, who left office at 66 percent approval. Humphrey served Lyndon Johnson, who left with 49 percent approval.

We don’t know where Barack Obama will fall on that list. But he’s struggling now, and this is of particular concern for Biden because his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, has already left the administration and can thus, in classic Clinton form, ditch unpopular policies and pretend to have had strong strategic instincts from the beginning. Biden cannot.

For example, Biden announced the administration’s “reset” with Russia, which turned out to be an appalling fiasco. But Clinton, as the nation’s chief diplomat, took high-profile stewardship of the reset. The disastrous policy still follows Biden around, as he must survey the wreckage of his administration’s failures and try to contain the damage. Clinton mocked Mitt Romney’s contention about Russia’s geopolitical threat to America, but now, freed from the administration, she can simply pretend she isn’t totally and catastrophically naïve about Russia:

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged Canada to forge a unified front with its U.S. neighbour to counter what she portrayed as heightened aggression by Russia in the Arctic.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd in Montreal on Tuesday night, the former first lady and possible future presidential candidate used her podium to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions not just in Ukraine, but closer to Canada’s borders.

Putin is coming for you, Canada! This comes on the heels of Clinton’s comparison of Putin to Hitler. Such verbal gymnastics are not so easy for Biden, who is still serving in this administration and therefore can’t rewrite his own history the way Clinton can. Which makes him much more likely to go down with the ship, as Clinton and her life raft float off in the distance.

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Why the Russian “Reset” Failed

Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

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Today’s New York Times eulogy of the Russian “reset” is a worthwhile read, as would be expected from veteran reporter and Russia watcher Peter Baker. The piece tells the story of the ill-fated reset from start to finish, though the two points arguably occurred simultaneously. That is, the reset never really got off the ground, because Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin had no interest.

It wasn’t so much that Putin found President Obama to be unlikeable or offensive. It’s that he seems to have viewed Obama’s Kumbaya quest much the way the rest of the world viewed it–and, it’s worth adding, the way it deserved to be viewed. It was both utterly meaningless and quite literally a waste of time. Putin never understood why exactly he was supposed to invest time and energy in pretending to care that Obama pretended to like him.

Putin’s impatience was bottled up during the administration of Dmitry Medvedev, when the Kremlin pretended Putin wasn’t in charge. But that bottle was uncorked the moment Putin retook the throne. Baker’s piece begins with a story about how, days before Putin was to formally resume his presidency in 2012, Obama’s national security hand Tom Donilon was dispatched to Moscow for a face-to-face meeting with him. Putin opened the discussion with a question: “When are you going to start bombing Syria?”

Baker was savvy enough to lead off his piece with this incident presumably because he understands the degree to which that one sentence sums up the rocky relationship between Obama and Putin. The two leaders have at least one personality trait in common: they both devote an inordinate amount of attention to appearances. But it’s this shared concern that sabotages the bilateral ties. Obama wants to present the appearance of a man who prioritizes thoughtful engagement and cross-cultural understanding. Putin wants you to know he just shot this Siberian tiger.

The Obama White House was naïve; to their credit, some in the administration are willing to admit this, even if anonymously–though you have to wait to the end of the article for it:

But Obama aides say they oversold the reset, both to the public and maybe even to themselves; it was never meant to transform Russia into an American-style democracy or eliminate all areas of friction. “We probably overestimated the shared-interest angle,” said one official.

The goal now is to keep it from sliding much further. “I don’t think it’s going to get any better any time soon,” said a former administration official. “In fact, I think the potential for something worse is pretty high.”

In their attempt to fool the public they fooled themselves instead, though they never fooled Putin for a moment. Elsewhere, Baker writes: “The arrival of [Edward] Snowden in Moscow, coming on top of anger over a new Russian law against pro-gay ‘propaganda,’ was nothing more than a final death blow to the reset.” The reset had been dead a while, but apparently the president was the last to know.

Being nicer to the Kremlin in public didn’t win Obama any good will from Putin because Putin doesn’t believe in notions like good will having any place in international affairs. Do you have something he wants? Does he have something you want? Those are questions he has time for. Anything else is nonsense. Putin is nobody’s therapist and he’s nobody’s pen pal. He has a state to run, human rights to violate, and a major asset in the Middle East that is embroiled in a nasty civil war. By the way, that reminds him: when are you going to bomb Syria?

This doesn’t mean that Putin is a realist–he is an authoritarian thug. But neither is Obama a realist–the reset was plainly and transparently a fantasy. White House aides in the story talk up the “successes” of the reset, the latest START treaty foremost among them. But START was a bland distraction from the real nuclear proliferation-related issues and thus a waste of political capital. In Obama’s limited defense, though, it’s clear his lack of experience and nonexistent relationship with Congress meant he had no idea he’d have to spend political capital on it in the first place. As Baker reports:

The highest-profile victory was their treaty called New Start, paring the legal ceilings for deployed strategic warheads by a third and launchers by half. But it proved to be more of a slog than Mr. Obama and his team expected. “We thought Start was going to be easy, we really did,” said a former official. “And it turned out to be very, very hard.”

This also raises the question of how much credit the reset can take for even modest, debatable “successes.” Here is the lasting legacy of the reset, from the administration’s point of view:

Obama advisers argue it worked in a way by restoring relations after the rift over the Georgia war. There are areas of cooperation even now. Moscow has not reneged on the New Start treaty or the Afghanistan supply route.

This is when defending the reset begins to veer from naïve to delusional. If you think Moscow cooperated on Afghanistan because Obama was nice to Putin and not because it meant having coalition forces bear the responsibility for containing the Afghan tribal wars and drug trade, you haven’t paid much attention to Putin’s policy in Central Asia.

And perhaps neither had Obama, but that appears to have changed. Administration advisors–named and anonymous, current and former–may argue over the details, but no one seems to be making the case that the reset is still in play. Baker’s article represents the administration’s acknowledgement of reality, a welcome shift in perspective–though it remains to be seen if it also heralds a change in policy.

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