They’re not kidding when they say it’s difficult to hold the White House for three terms in a row. So much depends on the incumbent: Is he deemed a success or a failure? Is he loved or derided? The candidate seeking to replace a president of his own party is betting the country doesn’t want to change. Bush 41 bet correctly—in 1988. Al Gore and John McCain did not.
Hillary Clinton? Her problem was on display Thursday when she presented her anti-ISIS war plan to the Council on Foreign Relations. For ideological and political reasons, she is unable or unwilling to distinguish herself from Obama. If the war against ISIS were going well, her decision would be smart politics. But the war is not going well. The war is a disaster. A growing one, as the Paris attack made clear.
The president is quite the neoliberal—mugged by reality yet refusing to press charges. His approval rating on foreign policy is consistently underwater. Two-thirds of the country says it’s headed in the wrong direction. And yet Clinton’s ISIS strategy is essentially the same as Obama’s. Fierce airstrikes. An "intelligence surge." Special forces. Pressure the Iraqi government to be nice to its Sunnis. Agree on a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian Civil War. "Increased support from our Arab and European partners." Accept Syrian refugees. Above all, no major deployment of U.S. troops. On ISIS, Clinton is Obama's prisoner. A willing captive to his strategy. Where it goes, she'll go.
The subtleties intended to convince us that Clinton’s plan is more aggressive than Obama’s are laughable. Obama, you see, wants to "degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS" whereas Clinton wants to "defeat and destroy ISIS." Obama is "intensifying" the fight against ISIS whereas Clinton is not only intensifying but also accelerating it. Intensify and accelerate a bad policy all you want. It will remain bad.
Where does Clinton differ from the president? "I thought we needed to do more to try to identify indigenous Syrian fighters, so-called ‘moderates’—and I do think there were some early on—that we could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad." Dude, that was like four years ago!
Clinton won’t even say Obama was wrong to call ISIS the "JV team": "I don’t think it’s useful to go back in and re-plow old ground." Criticizing Obama for the junior varsity comment is political free money. No one but the president and Susan Rice would be annoyed if Clinton said he should’ve taken the threat more seriously.
But she can’t bring herself to do it. Not just because she needs the president and his coalition to support her a year from now. Because she also approves of policies most of us see as failed or failing or counterproductive.
The Afghanistan surge, the Libya war, the Iran deal—Clinton embraces all of Obama’s foreign policy legacy, with the exception of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She touts Libya in particular. "We had the UAE, Qatar, Jordan involved in what we were doing on the ground" in Libya, she said Thursday. In response to a question skeptical of the Libya war, she said, "The Libyan people have voted twice in free and fair elections for the kind of leadership they want."
She offered Libya as an example of successful diplomacy. "The Europeans were the ones who wanted American support, and we did not agree to do so until we had a very clear idea what they were willing to do. And then we reached out and worked with the Arab League so that there would be Arab partners as well, and that took weeks." Who besides Clinton now judges the Libya intervention a success?
When President Obama took office, Iraq was stable. Now there are four failed states in the Middle East—Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen—and the potential for many more. This is the foreign policy legacy to which Hillary Clinton is committed.
President Obama is very good at advocating and implementing policies of which the public disapproves. Obamacare, the Bergdahl trade, the phony war on ISIS, the executive amnesty, gun control, the Iran deal, no changes to the Syrian refugee program—he’s been persistent in his flouting of majority wishes and constitutional norms. But Clinton doesn’t have his talent. She doesn’t have his fan boys.
Clinton must assume, as most Democrats do, that changes in our population and culture allow liberals to be much more dismissive and contemptuous of opposing viewpoints than they have been in the past. Clinton must assume, as most Democrats do, that the electorate will find the alternative to Democratic rule so repulsive that it will support whomever John Oliver tells it to. Clinton must assume, as many Democrats do, that the economy will be good enough, that Obama will be popular enough, that the world will be stable enough in November 2016 to ensure that the Clintons return to the White House.
That’s her bet. Did I mention it’s a risky one?