The mainstream media hasn’t devoted any attention to it yet, but the latest Hillary Clinton gaffe in which she calls upon Americans to show “empathy” for ISIS will soon become another one of her greatest hits alongside lines about dodging non-existent bullets in the Balkans, “what difference does it make” about the Benghazi attack, being “broke” after leaving the White House, and corporations not creating jobs. Her defenders will respond to the drumbeat of conservative mockery over this line by saying, not without reason, that it was taken out context and that the former secretary of state did not literally mean for us to show sympathy for terrorists. But even if it’s a cheap shot, the beating Clinton will take over her poor choice of words is one more illustration of a basic truth that contradicts Democratic optimism about 2016: their all-but-certain presidential nominee is just not a very good politician.
Clinton’s call for “empathy” came during a speech last week at Georgetown University in which she repeated one of the talking points that highlighted her term as secretary of state: the use of “smart power.” In theory, the term refers to the use of a combination of military strength, alliances, and partnerships to enhance American influence. Originally meant as a rebuke to George W. Bush’s alleged cowboy diplomacy and unilateralism, in practice it became more cliché than reality as on Hillary’s watch, the Obama administration’s abuse of allies (Israel, moderate Arab states, and Eastern European democracies) and failed attempts to ingratiate enemies (Iran, Russia) rendered it neither smart nor powerful. But having repeated the mantra often enough, Clinton is still convinced that her cipher-like reign at the State Department was a shining example of its use.
But her explanation of how “smart” people approach a confrontation with the enemy didn’t come out sounding quite as smart as she thought. As Fox News reported:
Touting an approach she calls “smart power,” Clinton urged America to use “every possible tool and partner” to advance peace.
This, she said, includes “leaving no one on the sidelines, showing respect even for one’s enemies, trying to understand and insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.”
Of course, a smart commander does respect their opponents and seeks to understand them by getting inside their heads to see what motivates them. But for a would-be president to talk about empathy for ISIS’s perspective and point of view is the sort of thing that is not easily explained especially when the person trying to sound smart by employing this has never demonstrated much in the way of strategic insight except when discussing her political foes among the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
The point is, even if we concede that Hillary didn’t really mean to say she wants American to empathize with terrorists, this is not the sort of statement a politician who knows what they’re doing will find themselves uttering. Like her characterization of what any non-billionaire would consider a healthy financial situation or her idiotic attempt to channel Elizabeth Warren-style left-wing populism about job creation, the ISIS empathy line is the product of a woman who has no natural feel for politics or genuine convictions. Though Clinton is desperate to show us how smart and in command of the situation she is, what often comes out of her mouth sounds ill considered or intellectually vapid. Even worse, these gaffes are not solely the product of a tendency to go off script but also rooted in her lack of a filter that would enable the would-be president to avoid saying scripted lines that a smart speaker would drop rather than merely read.
In other words, Clinton is a well-oiled gaffe machine who is never going to be able to stop saying things that will either be rightly considered stupid or are just poorly phrased in such a way as to make them sound outrageous even when they aren’t that bad.
Barring a decision by Senator Elizabeth Warren to challenge Clinton, I can’t imagine any gaffe being enough to derail her path to the Democratic nomination. But if she is matched up with a strong Republican candidate, this basic weakness will be crucial. Those who say she can’t be stopped should remember that eight years ago we were saying the same thing. Democrats would do well to ponder that precedent before nominating a gaffe machine for the presidency.