Hillary Clinton's real problem: It's possible to be both "authentic" and wrong

The "authentic Hillary Clinton" is a hawk. Maybe the country won't care much for authenticity after all

Published August 13, 2014 4:56PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

Team Hillary Clinton released a strange statement yesterday afternoon trying to tamp down the fire over her Epic Split with President Obama on foreign policy and, specifically, what should have been done in the early stages of the Syrian uprising.

The statement claimed that her comments were not "an attempt to attack him, his policies, or his leadership." Which doesn't make a lot of sense, since her comments were a direct criticism of his policy with regards to Syria. The statement itself even goes on to say that the two have had some "honest differences on some issues, including aspects of the wicked challenge Syria presents."

Clinton's explanation of her hawkish foreign policy, as we argued, probably wasn't the result of her reading polls of the president's poor foreign policy approval ratings and making a move; instead, they were her being honest about her foreign policy. Which is pretty well established by this point as stringently interventionist. She and all other politicians should continue to be honest, for the simple reason that when politicians are honest about what they want, it simplifies the process of picking and choosing whom one would like to support.

But the simple act of "honesty" isn't itself a political winner that rises above all else. It's possible to both a) appreciate Hillary Clinton for being honest and b) decide not to support her because you disagree with what she believes. Because policy matters!

We've agreed with much of what National Journal's Ron Fournier has been saying this week -- that Clinton's comments were more likely her honest, hawkish opinion than the result of a political calculation, and that yesterday's walk-back was relatively incoherent. But Fournier ultimately just finds a way to funnel all of this toward his vague obsession about Americans' thirst for leadership overriding all other considerations -- including crucial policy stances. Here's how he expresses his dismay with her walk-back in a piece today:

Clinton didn't make a mistake challenging a male authority figure. She wasn't wrong to speak her mind. Her aspirations are not dependent on her "hugging it out." The lesson here is to be true to yourself. Stick to your guns. Be authentic. After all, that's really what Americans want in a leader.

But there's another thing that Americans may want in a leader: disinterest in launching military interventions in Syrian civil wars! Authenticity is a great thing, but let's not pretend that the politics of authenticity are -- or should be -- strong enough to outweigh the politics of having out-of-step policy ideas.

We can all probably agree, though, that Clinton's thirst for interventionism is so well-established now that there probably isn't any point to her pretending to represent anything else. That doesn't mean, and shouldn't mean, that people will respond to such authenticity by giving her their vote. In Politico, one "Clinton ally" describes Clinton's Syria comments as "a trial balloon for the authentic Hillary. And if the Democrats won’t accept that then fine — maybe she won’t run." This sounds like the perfect solution for everyone -- Hillary Clinton, Ron Fournier, Democrats, you name it. Let Hillary Clinton declare her love for intervention from the highest mountaintops and then peace off if/when it turns out that Democratic primary voters disagree with her.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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Barack Obama Editor's Picks Foreign Policy Hillary Clinton Media Criticism Ron Fournier Syria