Picture the ad, either in the Democratic primaries or from a liberal independent candidate: Hillary Clinton — a pro-Wall Street buckraker, a foreign policy interventionist — championing George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and looking like a lukewarm supporter of President Barack Obama.
Clinton’s break last week with some of Obama’s unpopular foreign policies, in an interview with my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, is going to cause her political problems.
It makes her look calculating — probably unfairly — when she already faces some skepticism about her authenticity. And her hawkish, interventionist stance is at odds with the country and especially the base of the Democratic party, of which she remains a formidable favorite to lead in the 2016 presidential race.
Her support from Wall Street and the huge speaking fees she has taken from financial institutions since departing as secretary of state have already set off alarms with the Elizabeth Warren-loving populist wing of her party. Even in the country at large, Wall Street is about as popular as Congress, slightly ahead of toxic dump sites.
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In the Atlantic interview, she essentially re-stated previous positions; she has long advocated an activist foreign policy. For good measure, she seemed to suggest she’d be more supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Obama has been.
This at a time when little is going well for the president on the international front. Voters, by 60 percent to 36 percent, disapprove of the president’s handling of foreign policy, according to last week’s Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.
Yet, as Politico’s Maggie Haberman, a premiere Hillary watcher, reported, while it was her “furthest, most public step away” from Obama, the interview was scheduled well before the latest Islamic State-induced crisis, and the Hillary camp warned the White House about it.
In 2008, then-Sen. Clinton ran against Obama as a backer of a muscular foreign policy who had voted for the Iraq invasion; it hurt her in that losing quest. She subsequently said she was mistaken on the war, yet now she’s urging a greater American involvement in the region.
On Libya, she gets a bum rap from Republicans who hold her responsible for the killing of Americans in Benghazi two years ago. But she was the champion of American intervention in Libya to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi. When he was toppled, she thought it would be her signature achievement as secretary of state. Yet as that country has disintegrated into chaos, it’s no longer a point of emphasis.
Clinton also hinted at further breaks with Obama policies. That’s natural, yet she has to walk a delicate line, not looking too contrived. Surveys show Americans give her good marks for competence, intelligence and experience, but not so good on integrity and candor. And while Obama’s popularity is low, his hardcore base remains loyal.
Clinton is an overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination in two years, but her evolving positions may well encourage potential challengers who could be damaging. Think Pat Buchanan and the Republicans in 1992, or even Gene McCarthy and the Democrats in 1968.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was formerly the executive editor of Bloomberg News, directing coverage of the Washington bureau.
© 2014, Bloomberg News