US Affairs: Primary concerns

Messages relating to issues of foreign policy and terrorism aren't helping Clinton much.

obama clinton 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
obama clinton 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
New York Senator Hillary Clinton made a quick visit to the nation's capital this week. It wasn't a detour on her campaign to win Tuesday's crucial primaries in Ohio and Texas, but a key stop in her effort to highlight the credentials that she thinks should earn her the Democratic presidential nomination. Positioned in front of a line of American flags, and flanked by generals to underline her bona fides, Clinton gave a foreign policy address at George Washington University Monday that sought to play up her international and national security experience. She spoke of the new leadership she would bring by emphasizing diplomacy but acting to safeguard America's interests, as necessary. But she also drew sharp contrasts with her rival, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, attacking positions he's taken, as well as accusing him of lacking the background for the presidency. "In this moment of peril and promise, we need a president who is tested and ready, who can draw on years of real world experience working on many of the issues that we now confront," she charged. Clinton desperately needs to land blows against Obama to stop the string of primary victories that have given him a lead in the race for delegates to the national nominating convention. He has built up considerable momentum heading into Texas and Ohio, decisive races where Clinton was once expected to win easily but now faces a close challenge from Obama, according to the polls. Though messages relating to issues of foreign policy and terrorism helped George W. Bush get re-elected in 2004, they aren't helping Clinton nearly as much this time around. Her lack of traction on these issues is partly an indication of how the country's views on terrorism and the threats that face it have shifted during Bush's term. "In times where people's security is threatened, they tend to drift toward experience and a safer choice," explained Elaine Kamarck of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "They still felt a threat in 2004, so they stayed with Bush. I don't think there's that [feeling] as much now." She noted that there hasn't been a terror attack on American soil since September 11, 2001, which has helped push the issue lower on the agenda. "We're still at war and we have troops abroad. But this time they have to compete with the economy." Kamarck pointed to the military's strong regard for Clinton after her five years serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but said, "She's not getting credit for the esteem in which she's held by the American military leadership." The Clinton campaign tried to emphasize that point by having retired General Wesley Clark and retired General Johnnie Wilson appear along with her on Monday and sending out a list of 27 military leaders who had endorsed her for "commander-in-chief." She also touted her international perspective and travel abroad as a first lady and senator, pointing to her visits to more than 80 countries she's visited and diplomatic missions in which she's participated. "Foreign policy and defense policy are clearly strengths of hers," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist who supports Clinton. "Unfortunately, it's not the top issue on people's minds." That's allowed freshman senator Obama, with his message of change and inclusiveness, to resonate with a wide range of voters who have boosted him in the primary race. Still, according to Rabinowitz, it's one of the main weapons at the Clinton campaign's disposal in her efforts to form a contrast with Obama, and one she plans to use at several events leading up to next Tuesday's votes, two of the final contests in the primary process. "I think they see it as one of the few remaining opportunities to disqualify him," he said of the campaign's attempts to undermine his defense and foreign policy credibility. "Then maybe voters would be afraid to vote for him." As opposed to health care, where the difference between the candidates is merely in the details of each one's proposal, Rabinowitz said, "We're still debating whether he's met the threshold of competence for foreign and defense policy. I think he has, but much of the rest of the country may be uncertain." THE OBAMA campaign has countered that its candidate is well-qualified to be president, and that he possesses skills and qualities as - or more - important than a long resumé. They speak frequently of his vision, the new face he would give America and his ability to work well with people, including a bevy of advisers. "We're not hiring a technician here. We're hiring a leader," Alan Solomont, a major fundraiser and Jewish community leader who helps advise Obama on Middle East issues, told The Jerusalem Post earlier this year. Obama himself has countered Clinton's attacks on his foreign policy stances by comparing her positions to those of Bush, and criticizing some of her positions, including her initial vote in favor of the Iraq war. In the Democratic debate held Tuesday night, Obama charged, "On the critical issues that actually matter, I believe that my judgment has been sound, and it has been judgment that I think has been superior to Senator Clinton's." In addition to forming a contrast between herself and her Democratic rival, Clinton is also trying to tell voters that one of her advantages is an ability to compete well against the likely Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, a war hero with a strong background on security issues. In the debate, she said, "Standing on that stage with Senator McCain - if he is, as he appears to be, the nominee - I will have a much better case to make on a range of the issues that, really, America must confront going forward, and will be able to hold my own and make the case for a change in policy that will be better for our country." And while homeland security and defense policy aren't dominating the election news now, events such as a terror attack or an Iranian aggression could change that quickly and make them a major campaign issue. As Kamarck put it, "A lot of people are now more concerned about getting out of Iraq and getting the country back on track. Terrorism has receded as an issue - but it could come back."