Published on TheHill.com on September 16, 2014
Hillary Clinton is increasingly facing the same kind of problem as bedeviled former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his failed 1968 race for the presidency. Just as Humphrey did, she is wrestling with how to put distance between herself and an unpopular president, particularly as the commander in chief sinks deeper and deeper into an increasingly difficult foreign war.
Like Humphrey with President Lyndon B. Johnson, Clinton is seeking to take advantage of her experience in the race for the White House while trying to articulate where she differs with the president on the policy she helped to formulate. In both cases, the president — despite declining poll ratings among the general electorate — retained formidable resources as the leader of his party. Whipsawed between fear of antagonizing the president and his political base and the need to separate from a failed foreign policy, both Humphrey and Clinton present an image of vacillation and possibly weakness.
Like Humphrey, Clinton has a reputation as a hawk, an image carefully cultivated over the years. Her first term in the Senate was shadowed by the 9/11 attacks in her new home state. She always recognized her vulnerability, as a woman, to the charge that she would not be an adequate commander in chief, and her anti-war positions during her youth threatened to disrupt a future presidential candidacy as surely as similar views hurt John Kerry in 2004. So Clinton opted to serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee and backed the Patriot Act throughout her tenure, and she became an outspoken advocate of the resolution to use force in Iraq. (The former first lady felt so insecure about the implications of 9/11 for her career that she sought to relate to New Yorkers by implying her daughter, Chelsea, was near the towers when they collapsed. Chelsea later said she was watching the events unfold on TV a few miles away.)
But Clinton’s hawkishness backfired in her 2008 run for the White House and provided fuel for the fire that was Barack Obama. Impelled by the anti-war movement, the upstart won the Iowa caucuses and went on to defeat Clinton for the nomination.
Now that Obama has, in effect, switched sides, advocating new military involvement in the Middle East, the question is: Will Clinton follow him?
So far, she shows signs of not only going along with Obama but of wanting to lead the charge herself. Conspicuously, she has called attention to her support for arming the Syrian rebels during her State Department years.
But her hawkishness would seem to be only politically viable if she has no primary opponent, particularly not one from the left. But just as Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam catalyzed an adversary — first the weaker Eugene McCarthy and then the formidable Bobby Kennedy — so Clinton may find an opponent if she continues to tack to the right on Syria and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Right now, these problems loom only on a distant horizon. The war with ISIS is broadly popular following the terror group’s beheadings of U.S. journalists. Sixty-one percent support military involvement and, if it is restricted to air attacks, 68 percent say they will support it. But, wars have a way of becoming unpopular and swallowing up those who supported them.
Even if Clinton faces no primary, her pro-war stance might cause her base voters to stay home, or even defect. Humphrey lost to Nixon in 1968 because peace activists opted not to vote or even switched over to back the Republican Party.
The ISIS war makes these days treacherous ones for Clinton to navigate, and the history of her own failure in 2008 and Humphrey’s in 1968 serve as dire warnings.
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