I have read a slew of comments by pundits, columnists and self-described “progressive” organizations criticizing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her comments in The Atlantic to reporter Jeffrey Goldberg about (a) her disagreement with President Obama on the issue of early aid to moderate opposition elements in Syria to the Assad regime; and (b) her comment that “don’t do stupid stuff” does not a foreign policy make.
It’s one thing for writers on the liberal side of the spectrum, or organizations that describe themselves that way, to disagree with Clinton on her point of view and debate the facts and differing opinions based on those facts, on substantive or policy grounds. But that is not what happened. Instead, what we have seen is a series of ad hominem attacks, mostly going to Clinton’s real “motives” or the use of labels — labels like “hawkish” or “anti-interventionist” — devoid of facts and, as Shakespeare once wrote, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Let’s look at three facts to put to rest this pseudo flare-up over Clinton’s interview during the slow news month of August.
1. The characterization that Clinton’s comments show that she is truly a “hawk” who is defying the “anti-interventionist” Democratic liberal (a label used by a spokesperson for MoveOn.org, a self-described progressive organization) is inaccurate. Since Clinton’s early years in politics when she supported and worked for the most anti-Vietnam War candidate for president, Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), who went on to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1972, she has been a skeptic of overreliance on American military power, especially unilateral military intervention. Clinton’s record as senator and as secretary of State shows that she remains so to this day.
Her remark to Mr. Goldberg critical of the “avoid the stupid stuff” concept meant that she prefers an affirmative, forward-looking policy — not just one that avoids making mistakes. She spells out that affirmative and proactive concept in detail in her book Hard Choices and its specific application during her four years as secretary of State. She called it using “smart power”: a combination of “soft power,” using economic, cultural, trade, educational and other human rights assistance and communicating better America’s democratic and humane values, and tougher measures such as economic sanctions and the option of military power as a last resort, but seriously taken.
Her approach to Iran’s threatened development of The Bomb is a good example of this proactive policy of smart power. Secretary Clinton was a key player in orchestrating and implementing the tough economic sanctions on Iran that many would say brought it to the negotiating table. But like Obama, she won’t take the military option off the table. (Regarding President Obama: he, too, strongly supported using this “smart power” combination. He also supported military intervention in Afghanistan during his 2008 presidential campaign and since. Yet I don’t recall anyone from MoveOn.org accusing him for that reason of defying the “anti-interventionist” Democratic Party base.
2. One of Obama’s former senior White House officials and political advisers tweeted that “stupid stuff” was “occupying” Iraq under former President George W. Bush. He allegedly was referring to Clinton’s vote supporting the resolution authorizing intervention in Iraq. But the tweeter omitted at least two facts: first, that the Iraq War resolution was supported by 28 other Democratic senators, including then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and current Vice President of the United States Joe Biden; and second, that Secretary Clinton has described that vote as a mistake.
(Personal footnote: I don’t read too much into this tweeter’s quick shot at Clinton in response to the Goldberg interview. I know I have regretted many times some of my own impulsive tweets, with limited letters available. I happen to admire this tweeter very much. I know he also likes and appreciates Clinton for her loyal service to Obama during her four years as secretary and that, to his credit, Obama always encouraged disagreement and debate on various issues he faced during his presidency.)
3. Finally, the notion that Clinton can be challenged from the left because of a
“vacuum” regarding her positions on the issues is simply contradicted by the facts. Her progressive positions on issues and her voting record in the U.S. Senate over eight years are indisputable: pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-civil rights and human rights, pro-gun control, pro-Affordable Care Act, pro-increasing the minimum wage, pro-Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (having praised Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren many times for this regulatory body in the wake of the abuses that caused the 2008 Near Great Depression), etc. etc. This hardly suggests there is a “vacuum” on her left in the Democratic Party. See the latest proof of this from Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.
Indeed, every poll shows Clinton has overwhelming support from liberal Democrats. There are some in the Democratic Party, however, who mistake substance for a willingness to work with members of the other party to get things done — which is why Clinton was described by many Senate Republicans in such positive terms, or as, as the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) put it, “a work horse, not a show horse.”
So despite the pundits looking to create a contest in the Democratic Party between the “left” and the “center” or some such labeling to get the juices going to make for a bitter, divisive and therefore entertaining Democratic contest for the nomination in 2016, if Clinton chooses to run for president, I know there will be other candidates for the nomination and I hope there is a vigorous debate on the issues and solutions to the nation’s most important problems. We need that debate as Democrats. What we don’t need are invented differences based on innuendo and labels, rather than facts and substance.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is executive vice president of the strategic communications firm Levick. He is the author of Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.