Hillary Clinton's Road from State to the White House

As we look for the "new Hillary" to emerge for 2016, we can be encouraged that she will pull us back to the center.

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton takes her seat on on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, prior to testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the September attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as bipartisan general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The most important thing to remember about Hillary Clinton—above all—is that she is a politician. By modern definition, this is someone who will say or do anything to be "relevant", avoid blame or responsibility, and appear wise—above all, to remain in the focus of the media.  And, she needed all these "skills" during her most recent political gig as secretary of state. Good thing for her, because she was able to emerge mostly unscathed after a disastrous last few months in office.

Her Senate testimony on the 9/11 Benghazi terror attack (finally, after a head bump and a few weeks off to let the story cool down) was a classic Clinton slow-roll—and she got away with it, mostly.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Hillary Take the Fall for the Benghazi Attack?]

It was only Sen. Rand Paul, not known for his own clear thinking on national security, who took her to task. Paul said that if he were the president, he would have fired her. She wasn't fired, of course, because that would have been a very untimely admission of failure by the Obama administration; so they cooked the story about the "spontaneous demonstration" to insulate the president from an October surprise. The only political casualty in this ruse was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, who clearly took one for the team for the cooked story.

On the merits, however, Clinton was clearly responsible for the disaster: The repeated and ignored pleas for additional facility security were a classic reaction from the "cookie pushers" at "Main State"—and Hillary was, of course, clueless about it. Nevertheless, while responding to the contrived reporting of the event, she reacted with practiced emotion, saying, "What difference does it make now?"

The difference is that the ambassador and three others might be alive today had Hillary's so-called "professionals" at State just done their jobs. And, to her credit, Hillary did say that she " feels responsible"—this is because she is responsible. [See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

So, after this latest political duck and cover what does she do now? She takes a couple years off, "writes" a self-promoting book or two (I waggishly suggest Sniper Fire as the title for the first and What Difference Did It Make? for the next) and sizes up a presidential run in 2016.  By then, the Benghazi scandal will be long forgotten and she will likely—and still—be the top Democratic contender to succeed Barack Obama. However, some might ask: How could this be a realistic turn of events? Won't the Republicans "recover" by then?

Maybe not: After Romney's infamous (and vote killing) "47 percent" quote; our rapidly changing demographics; new immigration legislation; too many years of George W. Bush's wars fought with borrowed money; a spendthrift Republican Congress (motivating the Democrats to spend even more when they regained the majority–and they did), the odds seem against it.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Nevertheless, there is some good news for us as a nation in this forecast: The advantage of Hillary as our next president is that she represents a huge swing "back to the center" for American politics and a relative strengthening of U.S. national security policy from where it has strayed these past few years.

One only needs to look back at the 2008 primary contest—and especially the sharp toned debates between Obama and Clinton (e.g., "shame on you Barack Obama")—to realize the vast political and ideological space between them. Also don't forget the sage warnings of hubby Bill in 2008 about the dangers of such a radical swing to the left by the Democratic Party—Bill was right.

Assuming also that the Republicans are able to keep control of at least one house of Congress, the result will hopefully be a far more centrist government for us, beginning in 2016. And more good news—perhaps: Hillary recently gave us a preview of what a swing back to the center might offer in the way of enlightened public diplomacy to advance our national security goals and foreign policy agenda.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Why she waited so long to say what she did is anybody's guess, but it's a huge step forward, nevertheless. What she did was to take a serious shot at our anemic public diplomacy or "messaging" for foreign audiences. This is from a buried Fox News story on January 26:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the country must do a better job of transmitting a pro-Democracy message around the world to counteract the "extremist jihad narrative."

Clinton made the comments Wednesday as part of her long-awaited Capitol Hill testimony about the fatal terror attack on a U.S. outpost in Libya that included debate on how the country can prevent similar attacks in the Middle East and other regions in political and civil turmoil.

"I think we've abdicated the broadcasting arena both in TV and radio, which are considered kind of old-fashioned media (but) still very important in a lot of these ungoverned, difficult places where we're trying to do business," she said during House testimony. "We have to get our act together."

Clinton took specific aim the Broadcasting Board of Governors, an independent, lesser-known federal agency that oversees such groups as Voice of American and Radio Free Europe.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

While this is a theme that some have been advocating for many years (see, for example,) it rarely gets the high-level political attention it deserves. This because it flies directly in the face of the public affairs and media lobby, both in and out of government. How? It challenges their turf to "craft the message," and interferes with their personal ability to move in and out of government while maintaining "objectivity," which they believe they alone know how to achieve.

In fact, perhaps the most detrimental limitations on our ability to strategically message occurred during the George W. Bush administration. This happened when various "public affairs" political appointees —from the White House on down—had such unusual powers over the substance of our national security and foreign policies, that several creative efforts to operationalize our information strategies were shut down.

In sum, a theme heard around Washington these past few years is that we would have been "much better off" had Hillary been the Democratic nominee in 2008. A more recent theme is that she would have been a much better president than she was secretary of state. However, and as we look for the "new Hillary" to emerge for 2016, we can be encouraged that she will pull us back to the center—using the same kind of political "triangulation" that Bill Clinton perfected.

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