Hillary’s Big Macho

Sen. Clinton plays the “commander-in-chief” card.

Debate. Click image to expand.
Democratic presidential candidates debate in South Carolina

This is testosterone week on the campaign trail. First, Rudy Giuliani claimed that if a Democrat takes the White House, Americans will suffer more casualties from terrorists. Now, Hillary Clinton is arguing she has the credentials to be commander in chief based on her performance at Thursday night’s Democratic Party debate. In a press release to reporters Friday titled “Campaign Memo: Commander in Chief,” the campaign offered this as Exhibit A of her mettle:

In response to being asked what a President should do in the event of another attack by al-Qaida, Hillary said: “Having been a senator during 9/11, I understand the extraordinary horror of that kind of attack. I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate. That doesn’t mean we go looking for other fights. Let’s focus on those who have attacked us and do everything we can to destroy them.”

The quote from Hillary is edited to make her look as tough as possible. Those sentences all come from the same answer but were interspersed with some praise of Bush, an inconvenient reference to the decision to go to war with Iraq, and some other thoughts.

The editing (without ellipses that would let us know it has been done) is intended to show that a quick, decisive Clinton will be a “President who will start from strength.” This has at least three political benefits. Clinton appeals to general-election voters who want a strong commander in chief. She shows Democrats that she will be a muscular opponent when Giuliani or another GOP candidate attacks the Democratic Party’s weakness. And she emphasizes her strengths. Clinton scores very well in polls when voters are asked which Democratic candidate has the most experience.

But let’s stop to notice how the Clinton campaign is trying to reframe the debate. Instead of talking about Clinton’s actual judgment when it came to the vote on the Iraq war, they want to discuss her ability to decisively answer hypothetical questions in a debate.

The primary target of her gambit is Barack Obama. Obama flubbed that same presidential response question, talking about Hurricane Katrina and the need to make sure intelligence was sound. You could argue Obama was trying to be thoughtful and cautious (after Bush, why not?), but even if he was going for that, his answer was unfulfilling. Even without Clinton’s editing of her quote, she came across as more forceful.

Is this question of retaliation a key indicator of her capacity to be commander in chief, as Clinton claims it is? No. The question of what to do after an attack is one of the easier foreign-policy questions. Who wouldn’t have gone after Afghanistan post-9/11? The harder questions for candidates concern the use of force when America hasn’t been attacked. Which of the threats facing America require military solutions, and which require diplomatic ones? These are issues the new president will face on the first day and every day of his or her presidency. The hypothetical attack Clinton responded to may never come. The problem for Clinton is that focusing on what to do when we haven’t been attacked returns the conversation back to her Iraq vote.

And Obama definitely sounds better when it comes to these harder questions. Here’s a debate quote from Obama on the question of using force to protect American interests. (For fairness, I’ve used the same no-ellipses editing technique as the Clinton team.):

We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks have to be dismantled. There is no contradiction between us intelligently using our military and, in some cases, lethal force to take out terrorists and, at the same time, building the sort of alliances and trust around the world that has been so lacking over the last six years. Have no doubt, Iran possessing nuclear weapons will be a major threat to us and to the region. They are the largest state sponsor of terrorism supporting Hezbollah and Hamas. I think it is important for us to also recognize that if we have nuclear proliferators around the world that potentially can place a nuclear weapon into the hands of terrorists, that is a profound security threat for America and one that we have to take seriously.

Obama is not just going to hunt down people who have attacked Americans but he’s going to hunt down people who want to. He also thinks military action is a serious option if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon. His views may not appeal to the voters he is trying to court, but it’s clear that Clinton is not the only candidate who’s promising to be a muscular commander in chief.