Clinton-Obama Feud: Behind the Scenes
You cannot make peace with your friends, only with your enemies. But you cannot shake the hand of someone whose fist is clenched. On the surface, these two conflicting notions lie behind the dust-up between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the Democratic debate in Charleston, S.C., this week.
But, as my interviews with two top Obama and Clinton aides showed Wednesday, there is a deeper conflict: The Clinton campaign is selling "strength and experience," while the Obama campaign is selling "fundamental change." Onstage at the debate, Clinton and Obama took different stands when asked if, as president, they would meet with the leaders of five nations who are hostile to the United States.
Obama said he would hold such meetings, and Clinton said she would not. The next day, Clinton denounced Obama's view as "irresponsible and frankly naive." Obama bashed back, saying, "If you want to talk about irresponsibility and naivete, look at her vote to authorize George Bush to send our troops into Iraq without an exit plan."
As in many of these disputes, exactly what was asked and exactly what was answered can get lost in the scuffle. So this is from the transcript of Monday night's debate.
QUESTION: "In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, 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, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?"
(Just for the historical record: Anwar Sadat did not travel to Israel in 1982. Sadat was assassinated on Oct. 6, 1981. He went to Israel in November 1977. I am going to assume Clinton and Obama knew this but did not want to embarrass the questioner by pointing it out.)
Obama gave a clear and direct response as to whether he would meet with hostile foreign leaders.
OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them -- which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration -- is ridiculous.
Obama then went on to give a little historic perspective and also to say that while Iran and Syria have been acting "irresponsibly," meeting with them could be beneficial.
Clinton's answer was also direct.
CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. Clinton continued that she wouldn't want such meetings used for "propaganda purposes," but "I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration."
She continued that she would use "a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters," 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."
I thought Clinton's use of Castro's name was clever from a political standpoint and a sign of how agile she can be at these debates. A meeting without conditions between any U.S. president and Castro would be anathema to much of the Cuban-American community in this country. And while many Cuban-Americans vote Republican, after the recent meltdown on immigration reform, some may be looking for a Democrat in 2008.
But you could view it another way. If, as Obama hopes, this election is going to be about change, perhaps voters want a change in how our next president conducts diplomatic missions, including a desire for bolder methods and initiatives than previous presidents have used.
On Wednesday, I talked to Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton adviser, and David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Obama. "Voters will decide which approach they favor," Wolfson said. "Sen. Clinton obviously believes we need to reverse the George Bush era by engaging in vigorous diplomacy but does not believe we ought to commit to meetings without conditions with each leader of rogue nations in the first year of her presidency."
And though some news reports following the debate said Axelrod was dialing back on Obama's willingness to meet with the foreign leaders of hostile nations, Axelrod was not talking that way on Wednesday.
"He wasn't suggesting he would call Hugo Chavez and invite him over for a cup of coffee; obviously there are some things to do first," Axelrod said. "But Obama would not emulate the Bush strategy of shunning our adversaries."
Axelrod went on: "Obama has said, 'If I sit down with foreign leaders, they might not like what I have to say, but no dialogue is not a strategy.' I think Obama would be aggressive in diplomacy. If he thinks personal involvement can help resolve conflicts or deliver a message, I don't think he will be constrained."
To Axelrod, the difference is not, as Clinton later framed it, a difference between strength and naivete, but the difference between the past and the future.
"Barack is talking about the broader need to change," Axelrod said. "Ultimately, this election will turn on who the people believe will represent fundamental change. Barack Obama will champion that change." To Wolfson, Clinton once again showed that she is the candidate Americans can trust with their future because she has had such a wide range of experience in the past.
"She has represented America abroad throughout the '90s, and she understands the power and prestige of the presidency and how and when it can and should be employed," Wolfson said. "Each time she walks into one of these debates, she shows why she is the candidate with the strength and experience to be president on day one. These debates have been our friends."
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