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July 27, 2007

Clinton vs. Obama, Clinton and Obama

I agree with Brian that it would be nice if political journalists would actually evaluate the substantive merits of the Clinton/Obama spat rather than engaging in endless meta-analysis of its positional impact on the horserace, but I fear that he's wrong to think this actually represents "a standoff between a status quo foreign policy and a much more constructive (though I hesitate to say new) direction."

So far as I can tell, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton don't disagree at all. Barack Obama would, if made president, deploy various ambassadors and envoys to lay the diplomatic groundwork that could result in Obama meeting with leaders of countries that America doesn't necessarily consider allies. Hillary Clinton, too, would deploy envoys and various high-level administration officials to lay the diplomatic groundwork that could result in Clinton meeting with the leaders of countries that America doesn't necessarily consider allies.

So why the argument? Well, you need, first, to remember the question that was asked:

"Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea?"

"I would," responded Obama.

As far as I can tell, the actual dispute here stems from a central ambiguity, followed by some opportunism. I heard that question and assumed it was asking whether, in contrast to the Bush administration, you would open negotiations, and possibly have meetings, with the heads of countries like Iran. I'm pretty sure that's how Obama understood it. But Hillary heard that, saw an opening, and pounced. And Obama, being a smart politician, didn't back down, and has instead used the spat to tie her rhetoric to Bush's rhetoric, with which it shares some similarities.

But Obama's current position -- "the notion that I was somehow going to be inviting them over for tea next week without having initial envoys meet is ridiculous" -- is, I think, no different at all from Hillary's stated policy that "I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are...I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be." She's emphasizing her caution, he's emphasizing his break with the Bush administration. But the two don't substantively differ.

So while I too would like a media that focused on the actual substance behind their positions, I think that such a media would have rapidly tossed this story aside. At the end of the day, this is really about Clinton and Obama demonstrating their central appeals: Change for Obama, and competence for Clinton. Both think they can win this spat. Maybe they're both right. But I don't think, on this point, either is indicating a radically different policy. Their main disagreement is on which of them should be President.

July 27, 2007 | Permalink


I was really taken aback after the debate ended, when Wolf Blitzer came on and told everybody that that was the most important moment of the debate.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 27, 2007 11:08:49 AM

I absolutely agree with you that the answers given in the debate and the subsequent back-and-forth do not reveal any real difference in policy, other than reinforcing a general sense that Clinton is more hawkish than Obama.

But I think this question was a critical moment in the debate, as Clinton took superb advantage of her opportunity to follow up with more nuance on Obama's 30-second answer. I think Clinton won that exchange in the debate but if she had been asked the question first and Obama followed up with a thoughtful caveat, he might very well have made Clinton's initial answer look too simplistic. I think Clinton scored as a debater, but didn't win any substantive policy disagreement.

Posted by: Joseph Hovsep | Jul 27, 2007 11:23:28 AM

This was about Clinton demonstrating her vast superiority at campaigning to Obama and is why she will be the nominee and he won't. The substance of the dispute matters not at all.

Posted by: Ron | Jul 27, 2007 11:30:41 AM

"Both think they can win this spat. Maybe they're both right. "

No. Unless you assume both view Edwards as their chief rival, they can't both win this spat. It's a classic zero-sum game.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 27, 2007 11:49:00 AM

Actually they both lose. It helps Edwards.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 27, 2007 11:54:31 AM

I think you've got it right, Ezra. These debates are very strangely missing the cenral thread of how candidate X will differ from the philosophy and practice of Bush/Cheney.

The question asked was in the Bush/Cheney context, if not mentioned. Bush/Cheney don't like and use diplomacy as the key foreign policy tool, and negotiations are viewed by them as fruitless unless the opposing party first gives up their position (surrender).

Both Clinton and Obama answered in a vaccuum instead of relating their policy as being different than Bush/Cheney by making discussion, diplomacy, negotiations and international consensus primary.

So it appears they have differing views when in fact there is only cosmetic differences on the same major reversal of the US position on the primacy of non-war over war.

Obama allowed himself to get punked, and he is (will) be paying for it, not because of substantative differences but because of how Clinton was able to frame Obama as being inexperienced.

I blame both of them (actually almost all the Dem. candidates) for making the primary - as it usually is - about differences between Dem. candidates, when they should be making the constant point that the choice in foreign affairs is between a party that will change our approach versus a party that will continue the Bush/Cheney insanity.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jul 27, 2007 12:02:28 PM

"Actually they both lose. It helps Edwards."


It's rare and weird to see a fight like this where two candidates both get locked into throwing high profile punches at each other in a multi-candidate race for a prolonged period of time. I don't think this fight was in either of their interests, but they both miscalculated at the beginning and got locked in.


And on the topic of Edwards, ain't this video great?

Posted by: Petey | Jul 27, 2007 12:11:12 PM

It may be that Obama and Clinton don't really disagree, but that would imply that Obama's response doesn't reflect his view, that he wouldn't really meet the foreign leaders without preconditions (and that's the key difference, not whether there would be preliminary groundwork). I think Obama, who does best when he's had time to think, just gave the wrong answer, and Clinton gave the right one, and it worked to her advantage, especially with swing voters down the road. I don't think it directly affects Edwards, but the fact that Obama and Clinton continue to hog the media oxygen is still a problem for him.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 12:21:41 PM

Frankly, the election of either of them would help our reputation immensely. I think that should be the major point when talking about Foreign Policy.

Posted by: leo | Jul 27, 2007 12:24:33 PM

He would meet without preconditions, she would not.

Posted by: cms | Jul 27, 2007 12:25:56 PM

"the fact that Obama and Clinton continue to hog the media oxygen is still a problem for him."

If this week was a problem for Edwards, then I pray he has nothing but problems from now until January.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 27, 2007 12:28:15 PM

I think there is a substantive difference.

Hillary Clinton is a realist. Think Henry Kissinger.

Barack Obama is a liberal. Think Joseph Nye.

That is a difference.

Posted by: There is a difference | Jul 27, 2007 12:30:32 PM

Like it or not, Hillary and Obama are going to have to close ranks come February, and mend their fractured forces into a cohesive Democratic front, or it's eight years of Guiliani/Thompson.

Hillary's petulant cheap shot at Obama -- likely just the beginning -- has already ruptured the party. She has signaled that it is better to burn down the house than let anyone else get the nomination. Indeed, unless this fracture is repaired very quickly, 2008 is grim for the White House aspirations of Democrats.

Posted by: apetrelli | Jul 27, 2007 12:30:47 PM

I think there is a substantive difference (or if there isn't, Clinton expressed herself really poorly). It seemed to me from Clinton's answer that she buys into the Bush Administration's view that talks with Americans are a cookie to be handed out only to good children. (And isn't it funny that despite the first sentence of the post, almost all the comments are horse-race comments?)

Being willing to *meet* with someone, without precondition, does not mean you are willing to make diplomatic concessions to them without precondition (which would be absurd). Willingness to allow them into your August Presence is not a concession.

The MSM are so invested in the Versailles culture that they think it's an honor just to get near the President (never mind being allowed to actually *talk* to him), and therefore "an American president does not share the honor of his office with a malevolent clown like Hugo Chavez". (Direct quote from Krauthammer's column in today's WaPo.) And anyone who doesn't "instinctively understand" that is a brash neophyte who can't be trusted with the serious responsibilities of the presidency.

But meeting with the leaders of other countries and ironing out differences with them is part of the President's *job* (at least, in cases where the Secretary of State can't resolve the issues without presidential involvement). It's not an honor, or a gift, or a concession. It's just a buck that stops there.

Posted by: Chris | Jul 27, 2007 12:32:21 PM

I think that Obama meant what he said, and that he learned that technique of not vilifying people, meeting with everyone, when he was a community activist and organizer. I think he spoke to his instincts, which are a willingness to engage. Meeting with people doesn't mean you concede to them; it means you take the steps to build trust. It isn't what we're used to (and it is counterintuitive unless you've personally done peacework), but I'd like to see more of it in our governance.

Posted by: Megan | Jul 27, 2007 12:39:01 PM

It directly affects Edwards because, if you look at the polling data (both national and state based), the support for most candidates is soft and there is undecided vote in the double digits. Clinton and Obama maybe hoggint the media oxygen, but they are doing so in a way that makes them look bad. Who will be in a position to take advantage of this going into the early primaries if this continues? In many ways, I am glad people wrote Edwards recently in the game. It requires patience and remembering Democratic primary history, but what it means is that the target was taken off his back and put onto the backs of Clinton and Obama. Again, remember- there are still a lot of undecideds and soft votes. Going into an extended cycle of negatives rising for Obama and Clinton can only help Edwards in this regard.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 27, 2007 12:55:34 PM

It seemed to me from Clinton's answer that she buys into the Bush Administration's view that talks with Americans are a cookie to be handed out only to good children.

She said nothing like that. Meeting with a foreign leader, however, does send a message about our attitude towards that leader, and with leaders we really don't approve of it should be reserved for when it can accomplish some good, since there will be a cost in perception of our conceding something otherwise (like it or not, it's a fact). That's part of what makes summits useful, that getting to one requires some progress. Meeting without preconditions at least regarding symbolic gestures is foolish and counterproductive. You don't meet with someone just to give them a platform to spit in your eye.

If Obama meant what he said, then he's too green. Community organizing is vastly different from international politics, and while I admire the impulse to sit down and reason together with our enemies--which we should definitely do at lower levels--to try to jump almost immediately to the force of personal contact between leaders would be rather like trying to look into Putin's soul. The forces involved at the international level are far less open to progress based on personal good will; they're far broader and deeper than that. Personal good will is essential, but it can easily be used against you in ways more abundant and harmful than in Chicago.

Clinton and Obama maybe hoggint the media oxygen, but they are doing so in a way that makes them look bad.

Not really. Clinton looks exactly how she wants to. The spat won't persist, but the impression made in the debate will. There's plenty of time for Obama to fix that, but he hasn't yet. There's never been a target on Edwards' back. He's just not managing to generate much attention of the kind he wants.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 1:04:02 PM

right- well I don't want to get into a tick tock with you Sanpete. I will just say you are factually wrong as to much of what you say.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 27, 2007 1:34:16 PM

That's OK, akaison. We'll just take your word for it.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 1:43:18 PM

sanpete- I don't feel the need to argue with you with facts becuase you will simply ignore them. Burn me a few times,and I learn not to stick my head in the fire. You are just a waste of intellectual time and effort. I don't think I've ever seen you link to anything once to back up shit you say, and I don't think I have ever seen you back down from making shit up even when proven wrong. If you want people to respond to you better you may try being a little bit more intellectually honest.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 27, 2007 1:45:41 PM

I think this was primarily an example of HRC sucking up to AIPAC and the Floridian Cubans. This kind of stuff is why I'm not a fan of her candidacy, and my feelings towards her husband were similar, for the same reasons. Btw, I just named my new cat Obama.

Posted by: beckya57 | Jul 27, 2007 2:09:00 PM

Akaison, I would take your claims here more seriously if you backed them up with some links. That's the sine qua non of reasoning! What you've actually learned is how to hide from yourself the fact that you regularly make stuff up and fail to back up your remarks, by projecting that onto others no end. You post with tick-tock regularity not to add anything substantive but to say why you won't actually make an argument or give a reason yourself, why it isn't worth your time to post about it at all, etc., etc. Ever notice that?

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 2:13:55 PM

Spin machines in full operation.

Basic politics. Political infighting in the runup to the primary season is a fact of life. Predicting political doom in the general election based on such over a year in advance is transparent nonsense.

When the first and second place candidates start attacking one another publicly, it is always good news for the third place candidate. It provides opportunities for wooing voters alienated by the infighting and it tarnishes the "inevitability" of either of the first two candidates.

Anyone predicting the outcome of '08 at this juncture is either spinning or kidding themselves.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 27, 2007 2:14:36 PM

When the first and second place candidates start attacking one another publicly, it is always good news for the third place candidate.

I think that's a good rule of thumb only when the third candidate is in a position to take advantage of it. I don't think it alters any perceptions of inevitability, but it may make some look closer at Edwards. This has happened before with Obama and Clinton (the Hollywood flap), and all it got was more publicity for both, no help for Edwards. I think it will quickly blow over as before. We'll see soon enough.

Anyone predicting the outcome of '08 at this juncture is either spinning or kidding themselves.

Definitely true.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 27, 2007 2:30:21 PM

this can't 'quickly blow over' if obama wants to move from second to first. to do this, he must attack the supposed front runner. which means hrc must retaliate which means both come out looking bad. perfect situation for edwards who has the exact traction he needs to leverage this by using iowa and other primaries. this would be his strategy if i had to guess.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 27, 2007 4:01:44 PM

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