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29th Feb, 2008

The Moral Failure of Hillary Clinton and Her Campaign

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ohio democratic presidential debate

As usual, the press and the blogs missed the point of Hillary Clinton’s bizarre debate performance–it wasn’t about issues but about principles. Much of the analysis of the debate has focused on the outward aspects of her performance such as her celebrated complaint about always being asked the first question. The real key to understanding not only the Ohio debate but also why Clinton’s campaign has imploded lies in the transcript. If you take the time to review the text it reveals the moral failure of Clinton and her campaign.

The one moment the press did focus on came in response to Tim Russert’s question about what would happen if after withdrawing our troops from Iraq we found ourselves facing a situation in which al Qaeda exploited the vacuum by taking control of part of the country to use as a base to mount another 9/11 attack? Although I am not a fan of Russert, this question is one that John McCain has raised and is sure to be raised in the coming campaign. Just to make the scenario more interesting, Russert posited that what passed for the Iraqi government had told us they did not want us to intervene.

MR. RUSSERT: I want to ask both of you this question, then. If we — if this scenario plays out and the Americans get out in total and al Qaeda resurges and Iraq goes to hell, do you hold the right, in your mind as American president, to re-invade, to go back into Iraq to stabilize it?

The heart of the question, which the press seemed to miss, lay in its masterful focus on the heart of leadership, for it is in a crisis that we find out a leader’s true values. People need to see values translated into actions, especially during a crisis in which all a leader has to fall back upon is who they are and what they stand for. Curiously, in some ways these critical decisions evidence even more the qualities of authenticity and values that lie at the heart of transformational leadership, for these qualities may be all a leader has for guidance in those moments. As CNN’s Campbell Brown stated during the Texas Democratic Presidential Debate, “A leader’s judgment is most tested in a time of crisis.”

Clinton’s answer said everything about why she is losing this election and why she will not make a good President. First, she tries to dodge the question by saying she won’t deal with hypothetical situations. That may be a reasonable response to some off-the-wall impossibility, but the scenario Russert proposed has been on the table for some time as a real possibility following an American withdrawal.

SEN. CLINTON: You know, Tim, you ask a lot of hypotheticals. And I believe that what’s —

MR. RUSSERT: But this is reality.

SEN. CLINTON: No — well, it isn’t reality. You’re — you’re — you’re making lots of different hypothetical assessments.

Clinton’s attempt to shrug off Russert’s probing represented a moral and intellectual failure. It was plain from her attempt to avoid answering the question that neither she nor her staff had thought about this possibility or rehearsed an answer. We all know that is exactly why Iraq has turned into a mess: because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney never considered alternative scenarios when they brazenly invaded the country. In their hearts they knew they were right, so they never believed the country would fall into the sectarian chaos it has become.

The moral failure in Clinton’s dodging the question also was one of cowardice. She lacked a prepared answer, so she reused to give one. Unfortunately leaders and Presidents do not have that luxury. Whether it is an organization or the White House, you want someone in charge who WILL think about alternatives and who is not afraid to answer difficult questions.

Russert’s pit-bull personality can sometimes be grating, but in this case it proved an asset, because he would not let Clinton dodge the question. It was the rambling answer she finally gave that truly revealed her moral failure. You could almost see her triangulating as she spoke like a fifth-grader wondering about a trick question. Her triangulating told her the trick was an attempt to bring up the issue that has dogged her throughout this campaign–her vote in favor of the Iraq War. Clinton’s answer is worth repeating at length for what it reveals about her character:

I believe that it is in America’s interests and in the interests of the Iraqis for us to have an orderly withdrawal. I’ve been saying for many months that the administration has to do more to plan, and I’ve been pushing them to actually do it. I’ve also said that I would begin to withdraw within 60 days based on a plan that I asked begun to be put together as soon as I became president.

And I think we can take out one to two brigades a month. I’ve also been a leader in trying to prevent President Bush from getting us committed to staying in Iraq regardless for as long as Senator McCain and others have said it might be, 50 to a hundred years.

So, when you talk about what we need to do in Iraq, we have to make judgments about what is in the best interest of America. And I believe this is in the best interest.

But I also have heard Senator Obama refer continually to Afghanistan, and he references being on the Foreign Relations Committee. He chairs the Subcommittee on Europe. It has jurisdiction over NATO. NATO is critical to our mission in Afghanistan. He’s held not one substantive hearing to do oversight, to figure out what we can do to actually have a stronger presence with NATO in Afghanistan.

You have to look at the entire situation to try to figure out how we can stabilize Afghanistan and begin to put more in there to try to get some kind of success out of it, and you have to work with the Iraqi government so that they take responsibility for their own future.

I wanted to include the entire answer in order to show that Clinton never answered what may be one of the most crucial foreign policy questions we face. Notice how we start in Iraq and end up in Afghanistan with a dig at Obama for not holding hearings about Afghanistan.

Something more disconcerting is also going on here which should worry anyone about a Hillary Clinton presidency. In this question she has no points to triangulate between and seems totally lost. But what if the Republicans were to press her with a “soft on terrorism” argument, how would she respond? Would she give in as she did on the original Iraq vote? That even after Tim Russert’s probing we don’t have an answer is troubling.

In sharp contrast to Clinton, Barack Obama had no trouble dealing with hypothetical scenarios. If his answer showed that he also had not totally thought this issue through, it did show that in a crisis he could call on core values without waiting for the pollsters.

Now, I always reserve the right for the president — as commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that’s true in other places. That’s part of my argument with respect to Pakistan.

I think we should always cooperate with our allies and sovereign nations in making sure that we are rooting out terrorist organizations, but if they are planning attacks on Americans, like what happened in 9/11, it is my job — it will be my job as president to make sure that we are hunting them down.

Obama’s answer left me a bit uneasy, because it had a hawkish tone that had me wondering if he would fall into the same trap John Kennedy did with the Bay of Pigs, trying to show his strength as a young President. Yet I was also reassured by the reference to cooperating with our allies instead of the unilateral approach of the Bush-Cheney chickenhawks. McCain will press him on this one wanting to know where our consulting with allies ends.

At that point MSNBC moved to take a commercial break, but Clinton knew she had been bested and kept interrupting to try to recover her sinking ship.

SEN. CLINTON: Well, but I have — I just have to add —

MR. WILLIAMS: I’m sorry, Senator, I’ve got to —

SEN. CLINTON: Now wait a minute, I have to add —

MR. WILLIAMS: I’ve got to get us to a break because television doesn’t stop.

SEN. CLINTON: — because the question — the question was about invading — invading — Iraq.

MR. WILLIAMS: Can you hold that thought until we come back from a break?

The moral failure of Clinton’s campaign came through in other answers she would give that evening. She reminded me of my son’s college basketball coach a year ago, who seeded first in the conference tournament and playing on his home court, with the ticket to the Big Dance all but punched, ran into an offense that his game plan had not anticipated. Instead of changing his game plan, our coach kept trying to force through his “plan” until we were down twenty points and he literally walked away from his team.

The game plan Mark Penn and others have prepared for Hillary Clinton revolved around the now tattered issues of health care and experience. During the Ohio debate it sometimes seemed as though she turned every question into an opportunity to point out the differences between her health care plan and Obama’s. At one point I was ready to kick in the TV screen if she brought it up again.

When she wasn’t talking about health care she was trying to paint Obama as all talk and no action. Not content to end up with raw egg on their faces after the crack about all hat and no cattle in Texas, the Clinton team had another equally tasteless soundbite ready for this one. This was the now-infamous Saturday Night Live Crack:

If anybody saw “Saturday Night Live,” you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.

This and the Texas line have Mark Penn’s fingerprints all over them. You get the impression Penn would welcome becoming the Democratic Karl Rove, except Rove was better.

What became increasingly clear as the debate moved on was the moral hollowness of Hillary Rodham Clinton–at least as she had been prepped by Penn. Again and again Clinton’s refusal to evoke principles and her scripted answers contrasted with those of Obama. Here are the two candidates on NAFTA, another exchange in which Russert’s probing had Clinton wobbling like a drunk trying to stay in the middle of the road:

SEN. CLINTON: But let’s talk about what we’re going to do. It is not enough just to criticize NAFTA, which I have, and for some years now. I have put forward a very specific plan about what I would do, and it does include telling Canada and Mexico that we will opt out unless we renegotiate the core labor and environmental standards.

SEN. OBAMA: But what I did say, in that same quote, if you look at it, was that the problem is we’ve been negotiating just looking at corporate profits and what’s good for multinationals, and we haven’t been looking at what’s good for communities here in Ohio, in my home state of Illinois, and across the country. And as president, what I want to be is an advocate on behalf of workers.

By the end of the evening it was clear to me that Hillary Clinton would make a great manager, but a questionable President. It is not because she lacks experience or ideas, but because she is a transactional leader. Bernard Bass and Paul Steidlmeier might have been writing about the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama when they described how transactional and transformational leaders respond to the issue of faction Madison raised in Federalist #10:

[For transactional leaders] rival and opposing interests are best controlled if purpose and power are separated and transactional negotiations, trade-offs and exchanges produce compromises acceptable to all concerned. This is in contrast to the emphasis of transformational leadership on the sharing in a common vision and a common purpose.

The excitement Barack Obama generates is because American has not seen a transformational candidate since Ronald Reagan and a transformational Democratic candidate since Robert Kennedy. The body language in the picture at the top of this essay says it all. Note their head position and eyes. Clinton is literally looking down her nose at that audience while Obama is looking the audience in the eye with his head lowered to meet them. Clinton’s hand lacks only a piece of chalk to resemble an old-time schoolmarm giving a lecture. Obama’s level hand does not point at us, but seems to invite discussion.

The Clinton campaign is imploding like a pricked balloon because there is nothing in there. Any college student can draw up a health care plan, especially if they can crib it from John Edwards, but America is tired of position papers and plans. They want to know what their leaders stand for. Memo to Mark Penn and Hillary Clinton, “It’s about principles, stupid!”

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