Hillary Clinton is increasingly facing the same kind of problem as bedeviled former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey in his failed 1968 race for the presidency. Both she and Humphrey wrestled with how to put distance between themselves and an unpopular president, particularly as he sank deeper and deeper into an increasingly difficult foreign war.
Each sought to take advantage of their experience in the race for the White House while trying to articulate differences with the president on the policy they helped to formulate. In each case, the president — despite declining poll ratings among the general electorate — still retained formidable resources as the leader of his party. Whipsawed between fear of antagonizing the president and his political base and the need to separate from a failed foreign policy, both Humphrey and Hillary present an image of vacillation and possibly weakness.
Like Humphrey, Hillary has a reputation as a hawk, an image carefully cultivated over the years. Her first term in the Senate from New York was shadowed by the 9/11 attacks in her new home state. She always recognized her vulnerability, as a woman, to the charge that she would not be an adequate commander-in-chief. Her anti-war positions during her youth threatened to disrupt a future presidential candidacy as surely as similar views hurt John Kerry in 2004.
So, as an antidote, Hillary opted to serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee and became an outspoken advocate of the resolution to use force in Iraq. She also backed the Patriot Act throughout her tenure.
(Hillary felt so insecure about the implications of 9/11 for her career that she reportedly sought to relate to New Yorkers by pretending that Chelsea was right near the Towers when they collapsed and ducked into a coffee shop saving her life.
But Hillary's hawkishness backfired and provided fuel for the fire that was Barack Obama. Impelled by the anti-war movement, the upstart won the Iowa caucuses and went on to defeat Hillary for the nomination.
Now that Obama has, in effect, switched sides, advocating new military involvement in the Middle East, the question is: Will Hillary follow him?
So far, she shows signs of not only going along, but also wanting to lead the charge. Conspicuously, she has called attention to her support for arming the Syrian rebels during her State Department years.
But her hawkishness would seem to be only politically viable if she has no primary opponent, particularly not one from the left. But just as Johnson's involvement in Vietnam catalyzed an adversary — first the weaker Eugene McCarthy and then the formidable Bobby Kennedy — so Hillary may find an opponent if she continues to tack to the right on ISIS and Syria.
Right now, these problems loom only on a distant horizon. The war with ISIS is broadly popular following their beheadings. Sixty-one percent support military involvement and, if it is restricted to air attacks, 68 percent say they will support it.
But wars have a way of becoming unpopular and swallowing up those who supported them.
Even if Hillary faces no primary, her pro-war stand might cause her base voters to say home or even defect. Humphrey lost to Nixon in 1968 because peace activists opted not to vote or even switched over to back the Republican.
The ISIS war makes these days treacherous ones for Hillary to navigate and the history of her own failure in 2008 and Humphrey's in 1968 serve as dire warnings.
COPYRIGHT 2014 DICK MORRIS AND EILEEN MCGANN
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