The LBJ Analogy

By Matthew Yglesias

Dave Roberts comes away impressed by Hillary Clinton:

She seemed somewhat muted Sat. evening, perhaps because she was slightly under the weather (I heard her people had requested tissues). Intentionally or not, her serious demeanor worked -- it played off the activist energy in the crowd and came off as hard-bitten, realistic, even, dare I say, presidential. [...] Effectively, she was saying, "I'm with you; I understand the problem. But you need to give me some room to work -- attacking those of us on your side for insufficient purity isn't helpful." [...] Clinton was by far the most responsive to specific questions. She argued in some detail for why she is uniquely able to accomplish something on this issue. [...] My impression -- and this was confirmed multiple times by various audience members I spoke to later -- is that Clinton had the best grasp of the political and policy details. She was the most comfortable speaking off the top of her head. As one political operative put it to me later, "she's always the smartest one in the room."

To me, this is the most convincing case to Clinton. Rather than Sean Wilentz's Stevenson versus JFK analogy, I would analogize it to Lyndon Johnson versus every well-known liberal politician of the 1950s and 1960s. There were dozens of politicians circa 1964 with better records of bold progressive leadership on the crucial issues of the day. And Johnson did little-to-nothing to actually create the great progressive opportunity of the '64 election. But in the wake of JFK's assassination and the Goldwater nomination and the decades of groundwork that had been laid by the Civil Rights movement and the progressive unions the opportunity presented itself. And at just that moment the country was led by a man who was an opportunist -- a veteran master of the political and legislative process saw the opportunity and seized maximum advantage of it.

But of course, you can't talk about Johnson without talking about Vietnam.

And this bothers me about Hillary Clinton in a way that extends beyond the mere argument-by-analogy. What Roberts recounts as Clinton's attitude toward the climate change issue -- she understands the problem, she understands the solution, and rather than telling advocates what they want to hear she's telling them that she also understands how to move the ball forward in concrete, realistic terms -- seems pretty appealing to me. And on climate change, health care, and most of the other big domestic issues, I believe that she does understand the problem and understand the solution. The left-right divide on those topics has relatively little to do with disagreements about desirable end-states. Rather, you mostly see disagreement about political possibilities, or even things that aren't disagreement at all, but just different politicians responding to different political circumstances.

On foreign policy, though, I have no idea what direction Clinton wants to take the country. Barack Obama, by opposing the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, by proposing a "grand bargain" with Iran, and by promising a return to our commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to work toward the goal of complete eradication of nuclear weapons from the world has sent me important signals about his goals. He, like me, wants us to return to a policy grounded in international cooperation and efforts to strengthen international law and international institutions. John Edwards has staked out similar policy terrain and compensated for his bad earlier position on Iraq by boldly criticizing the "war on terror" concept.

Clinton, by contrast, hasn't done any of that. She's gestured in the direction of enhanced diplomacy with Iran, but her Foreign Affairs essay pointedly didn't pull full normalization of relations on the table as a potential carrot and she hasn't espoused a push for a "grand bargain." On nukes, she's taken the very odd middle path of joining Obama and Edwards in praising the Schultz/Perry/Kissinger/Nunn initiative while mischaracterizing what they say as a call for "reducing reliance on nuclear weapons" -- which just isn't what they said.

All of which is to say that while on health care and climate I believe that Clinton and her rivals all want basically the same thing, and that somewhat plausible arguments can be made that each of them are best-suited to achieve those common goals, it's really not clear to me on foreign policy. The Democratic Party hasn't historically been organized around a foreign policy doctrine. Joe Lieberman was run out of the party in 2006, but was the Vice Presidential nominee in 2000, and he can very plausibly argue that his views didn't change in those intervening six years and he's always been a knee-jerk hawk. Clinton's been politically savvy enough to talk a liberal talk, and for all I know would be substantively savvy enough in office to avoid foreign policy disasters. But she's also been careful to avoid committing herself to foreign policy liberalism as firmly as Edwards and Obama have, and for all I know she has radically wrongheaded ideas about national security on the merits.

When I read something like Josh Marshall bemoaning his disappointment that the Obama campaign hasn't done a very good job of making a forceful argument for why he'd be a better president, I sympathize. But I also think I should take my hat off to Hillary Clinton's campaign -- I think this has been less a failure on Obama's part, then cleverness on Clinton's. She's managed to position herself on foreign policy issues in a way that signals her differences with Obama very clearly to the tiny community of specialists while completely blurring them to the broader audience of voters. I'm not sure how this can be overcome, but I'm sure it can't be overcome by having writers further obscure the differences by focusing primarily on what a good job Clinton's done of obscuring them.

The basic reality is that each and every time the candidates stake out a position on something, Clinton takes a less-liberal line. Then each and every time Obama starts getting traction with the argument that Clinton is too hawkish, she backtracks and makes the argument that there's no real difference here. And it's true that if you look at any one thing with a microscope, the "no difference" argument can be made to stick. But it's the pattern that matters -- the initial support for Iraq, the more hawkish caste to her advisory team, the "naive and irresponsible" line, the meager carrots she's prepared to offer Iran, her weird position on nuclear disarmament, her campaign's courting of CANF and AIPAC, her vote for Kyl-Lieberman -- all point in the same direction and it's a frightening one.

It's hard to prove that Clinton would be a bad foreign policy president. And it might be hard to prove because it's not true. But it might be hard to prove just because she's done a good job of making it hard to prove. And I'm not comfortable taking that risk.

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