Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.
As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.
But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.
Clinton ran for president in 2008 as the more responsible of the two leading Democrats on foreign policy and lost, in no small measure, because Barack Obama positioned himself to her left on the war in Iraq as well as the war on Islamist terror. Yet once he appointed her as secretary of state, Clinton became the person delegated to execute his policies rather than her own. That contradiction has led to furious efforts on the part of Clinton supporters to depict her as the hawk in administration councils who urged the president to order the strike on Osama bin Laden as well as to intervene in Libya. This is exactly the profile Clinton will find useful in a general election—as opposed to a Democratic primary—but it is undermined by the fact that Clinton was the front for Obama policies that not only didn’t work, but which arguably set the stage for genuine disasters.
Obama administration defenders claim that the failure of the Bush administration to stop Putin’s Georgia adventure in 2008 demonstrates that the 44th president is not to blame for the mess in the Ukraine. But it needs to be remembered that when Ukrainians rose up in revolt in 2004-5 against the same Putin puppet in Kiev, Moscow didn’t intervene. It was only after Clinton demonstrated to Russia that the U.S. was no longer interested in opposing its adventurism and would give them a veto over efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program that Putin felt emboldened to strike.
Democrats may have believed that Clinton’s exasperated reply to questions about the lies told about the Benghazi terrorist attack—What does it matter?—was enough to ignore conservative sniping about a disaster that took place on her watch. But the violence in Ukraine and the possibility that worse is to come there and perhaps also in the Middle East only add to the doubts about her supposedly inevitable progression to an inauguration in January 2017. Now that she is re-entering the political fray, her poll numbers are beginning to decline. Stuck between her pose as the Democratic hawk and the reality of the failure of her efforts at appeasement, Clinton can no longer skate by with talk about flying about the world promoting American values.
If even the New York Times cannot assemble a coherent argument for her time as secretary of state as a success, then that is a poor omen for a general election in which she will have to account not only for her own political baggage but also the failures of a lame duck and increasingly unpopular Obama administration. Gender may remain a Clinton trump card in 2016, but the resume she built up so carefully over the last decade and a half since her husband left the White House is looking more like a problem than an asset.