If you are the last person in America wondering whether Hillary Clinton is running for president, her recent interview with The Atlantic should vanquish any doubts. In that interview, the former secretary of state, who during her tenure was unfailingly loyal to her boss and former adversary, sharply criticized certain aspects of his foreign policy.
Criticizing the Obama administration for its lack of an “organizing principle,” Clinton famously (already) said: “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
President Barack Obama’s team was not pleased.
“Now is not the time to second guess the commander in chief, particularly when you’re a former member of his Cabinet and national security team,” said Christine Pelosi, activist and daughter of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“Just to clarify,” Obama’s longtime political guru, David Axelrod, pointed out, “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.” A bad decision that — and this was the obvious point — then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., supported.
For her part, Clinton denied any intent to attack Obama, issuing a statement saying that she had called to reassure him of that — a statement that likely reassured no one of anything except Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Vice President Al Gore didn’t need to distance himself from President Bill Clinton when he ran for president in 2000, because when he ran, the country was in very good shape: strong economically and not at war. He did it anyway, and it was, in many people’s estimate, mine included, one of the reasons he lost.
The next Democratic nominee will have no such luxury. History may well be kinder to Obama than current polls are, but that’s beside the point. As the midterm elections are making painfully clear, Obama is loaded down with baggage that no future candidate should be forced to carry. If Clinton does not find a way to gracefully separate herself from the most recent Democratic presidents — not just Obama, but also her husband — the Republicans will shove their worst mistakes right down her throat.
And that is especially true of the next Democratic nominee if she happens to be a woman. The first woman president will have to be her own woman — neither the next Bill Clinton nor the next Barack Obama.
Perhaps the cruelest thing ever said of Hubert Humphrey was that he had the soul of a vice president. Vice presidents are supposed to be eternally loyal, which is why it is so difficult for some to figure out how to succeed their bosses. Separating in September or October just doesn’t work.
Clinton does not have the soul of a vice president, which is only one of the reasons she will make a great president. But blind loyalty won’t get her there.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.