Conservatives are having fun with the difficulty many Democrats, including a State Department spokeswoman, are having explaining what tangible accomplishments Hillary Clinton had at the State Department. It is not only funny, but it also has the benefit of generally being true since she was one of the least consequential secretaries of state in recent memory, with major missteps (e.g. Russian reset, Benghazi, obsession with the “peace process,” Syria).
But Republicans shouldn’t get their hopes up with this zinger for several reasons. And pursuing it has its downsides.
For one thing, Hillary Clinton is a lot better at making something out of nothing than her fellow Democrats. She’s likely to explain, “We were in such a hole after the Bush years that it took years just to get us back on good terms with our allies.” Even thought our relations with most countries at the end of her tenure were worse than when she began, to the general public, her excuse may fly. She’ll talk about Iran like this: “No other administration worked so hard to bring the world together for a series of United Nations resolutions and for biting sanctions that forced Iran back to the negotiating table.” This is also risible since the Bush presidency had more U.N. resolutions, her own State Department dragged its feet and opposed nearly every sanctions measure and she supported lifting them in the interim deal — thereby weakening the entire sanctions framework. Again, a sharp opponent (Republicans hope there will be one) or an aggressive interviewer (let’s not get our hopes up) could follow up, but Clinton will smile, tell us how complex the world of negotiations is and explain how Iran was forced back to the table. She might say — and this is actually true — that it was her efforts that finally got the president to act in Libya and topple Moammar Gaddafi. The problem is there is that she leaves herself open to attack to the accurate charge that she dropped the ball after the war, lost track of the influx of jihadis and didn’t pull her people out, as did other countries. In short, the “she accomplished nothing routine” works only in tandem with surgical follow ups and parsing of her sure-to-be slippery answers.
The second problem with pointing out her lack of accomplishments is, of course, her willingness to take credit for the “good things” (slight as they were) and tell voters the president ultimately makes the calls. This has the ring of truth insofar as the president, more than any other president in the last generation, runs foreign policy out of the Oval Office. It was his decision to bug out of Afghanistan early, ignore the Green Revolution, court dictators, drag his feet on Syria, sock it to Israel and give short shrift to human rights. Clinton will need to be delicate about not attacking the president; doing so would offend a chunk of the Democratic base. Saying she wanted to set up a no-fly zone in Syria may not sit well with anti-interventionist liberals.
The bigger problem with the strategy of claiming a lack of accomplishments is that voters may ask: So what? In their eyes, Clinton represented America honorably, the big messes (e.g. interim deal, Russia mischief) didn’t happen on her watch, and now she wants to get the job where she really will make a difference. Moreover, if she draws a freshman senator as an opponent the question is easily turned around: Other than talk and vote no, Mr. Senator, what did you ever do? (That’s a darn good question.)
Therefore, the charge of a lack of accomplishment is no silver bullet, and it may undermine a more powerful argument: She did make a difference, for the worse, and her policy judgment is unsound. She downplayed human rights, memorably telling the Chinese on her first visit that human rights shouldn’t stand in the way of the rest of the relationship. She bought into the “engagement” of Iran and actually thought Russia would be of help in resolving the Syrian civil war. She backed the Hugo Chavez stooge in Honduras rather than the coalition of the middle class, the churches and the business community that was seeking to prevent a power grab. She harangued and condemned Israel for building in its capital, repeatedly failing to recognize an existing agreement between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that allowed build up in existing blocks but not taking in more territory. She waffled on Egypt, backed Hosni Mubarak, then dumped him and never came up with a coherent approach to the Arab Spring.
It is more accurate to say she wasn’t responsible for much, but what she did do reflected an absence of strategic thinking and common sense. As we saw with her failure in health-care reform as first lady, Clinton’s ineffectiveness is largely a factor of her reliance on shopworn liberal ideas that are politically unworkable and unpopular with the public. Republicans, therefore, may find it much more damaging to her to make the case that she is the past, they are the future; she is the third Obama term, they will be a fresh start; she is stuck in 1960s big government, they are for conservative reform. That presupposes that the GOP nominates a knowledgeable and future-looking reformer, not someone who wants to refight the New Deal and doesn’t know enough about foreign policy to shred the ex-secretary of state.