When Hillary Clinton (reportedly) compared Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine to those of Nazi Germany, she was doing more than breaking a cardinal rule of public discourse. She was reminding America that she is tough and that Democrats are tough, a debate that was once a prominent thread in national politics and appears, by all available evidence, to be resurgent.
"Hillary doesn't stop at likening Putin's actions in Crimea to Hitler's in 1930s," the AP tweeted about a story documenting Clinton's expansion on her Godwin-upholding comments. "Vladimir Putin is a tough but thin-skinned leader who is squandering his country's potential," the news service summarizes Clinton saying, with her then clarifying that she wasn't actually calling Putin Hitler.
When Clinton ran in 2008, her "toughness" eventually came to be seen as an area of strength. That May, a poll indicated that about as many people saw Clinton as tough as saw Arizona Sen. John McCain that way. Clinton fostered the perception in part to contrast her foreign policy experience with then-Sen. Barack Obama, including in the famous "3 a.m. Call" ad.
But the push to reinforce her strength also lay in two other concerns: her gender and her party. As the Cold War evolved and collapsed, the Democratic Party was consistently portrayed as weak and coddling. There's an enormous amount of psychological complexity crammed into that, and a lot of history. But the short version was: Democrats would rather give up power than fight. Democrats like Jimmy Carter got Americans kidnapped in Iran by being weak. Republicans like Ronald Reagan freed those hostages and tamed urgent threats in Grenada and Libya (for a bit). That idea took hold. It's why Michael Dukakis, running for president in 1988, decided he needed to show his toughness by riding around in a tank. (Which backfired.) It's why in 2004 George W. Bush — who'd more than proven his toughness bona fides by then — went after John Kerry, like McCain a war hero, for being weak and soft and rich. And why the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth worked so hard to raise doubts about Kerry's record in Vietnam.
It's why Clinton hammered Obama in 2007 when he suggested meeting with Iran. By the 2008 election, though, foreign policy was seen as a less urgent need than addressing the economy. And when Obama made the call to take out Osama bin Laden in 2011, people hailed the end of the image of the weak Democrat. The White House reinforced that image of toughness; Republicans, like Donald Rumsfeld, tried to call it into question. But by the time Election Day rolled around in 2012, a The New York Times columnist noted that "the Republicans have lost their seemingly natural advantages," including on toughness. (That Mitt Romney was easy to portray as weak and soft and rich didn't hurt.)
Putin's incursion into Ukraine has put that at risk. All week, Republicans have blasted Obama for being weak, linking Putin's (however thin-skinned) brashness to everything Obama's ever done wrong. That carefully cultivated image of the tough Democratic president is at risk, right when Hillary can least afford it. On Fox News, Bill O'Reilly already extrapolated from Obama to Hillary on Putin — a few days before the Hitler comments, questioning Clinton's ability to be tough on foreign policy issues. A few days later, Clinton made her Hitler comments.
So far, she doesn't need to worry. According to a recent poll from Pew, Clinton's "toughness" numbers haven't changed much in the six years since 2008. And she still leads in the polls handily. But, then, war hero John Kerry was once leading in the polls, too.