Last night, I watched Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first “Conversation” with Americans over the internet. There are three more sessions — one tonight at 7 pm just before the President’s State of the Union address (ouch!) and then on January 23rd and 24th, all 30 minutes long.
I have to admit that while I could quibble with some of the substance of her remarks, the whole thing just blew me away.
Hillary Clinton has just created the new model for the State of the Union address — and made the format we are going to see tonight look as stiff, unimpressive, and anachronistic as an old vacuum tube television.
Preempting President Bush, Clinton was able last night to touch on her concerns about the President’s absence of clear-headed strategy in Iraq and still underscore her security concerns about al Qaeda and Iran; talk about New Orleans and what she would do to help get that city kick-started again; address America’s energy dependency problems with a massive new effort she has titled a “Strategic Energy Fund” as well as comment on other alternatives such as “all kinds of ethanol,” hydrogen, and the like. She talke about education, health care, trying to get ahead in a convulsive, unkind, and turbo-charged economy that is harsh on those at the lower end of the economic ladder.
Hillary told someone to “keep dreaming big dreams” and to “have hope”. She endorsed talking to “bad guys” abroad and working through these problems rather than trying to act like they aren’t there. Global warming and climate change got a lot of attention from her. She talked about shoring up America’s shoddy and dilapidated alliances abroad.
She even said that her three favorite movies were Wizard of Oz, Casablanca, and Out of Africa. She did all of this in less than 30 minutes and even asked someone in upstate New York to work on her campaign.
She, in essence, gave a State of the Union address to the nation in a novel new style that was “interactive”.
President Bush tonight is going to go through exactly the same routine that Presidents have followed nearly every year and strut, and glad-hand, smile, wave, at Members of Congress — our representatives — and then proceed to give Americans his read of what has gone right and wrong in America’s portfolio of challenges.
Senator James Webb will get to respond after — but that’s it! Well, there will be pundits out there offering views on the President’s remark and the Democratic Party response. But President Bush won’t respond to Webb; no one will respond to the pundits (I’ll be doing coverage tonight for a couple of networks).
I lost count but Hillary dealt with a good dozen or so questions, fielded by a smart looking young lady who was drawn into the camera’s view now and then to give us the idea that she was randomly picking these questions as they popped over the internet wire. Excuse me if I am a bit skeptical about that; nothing happens randomly — well few things — in this kind of high-octane politicking.
Nonetheless, it was impressive.
What was not impressive was that while Hillary Clinton bemoaned our situation in Iraq and told Americans that we still have a lot to worry about from a reconstituting al Qaeda network and from Iran and its nuclear weapons pretensions, she didn’t really give us any ideas how to move forward. While she embraced diplomacy and talking to bad guys, she should have stated her commitment to the kind of “New Diplomatic Offensive” that the Baker-Hamilton Study Group recommended in the Middle East.
While mentioning Israel specifically as a potential victim of Iran’s growing power in the region, she should have mentioned moderate Sunni regimes that also could be at risk. She had an opportunity to change the narrative that broad progress in the Middle East and the establishment of a “new equilibrium of interests” does not have to mean a net zero-sum loss for Israel. She stayed on the same old foreign policy/national security grooves that the President is on — and many others who haven’t thought deeply about how to leap frog over the current mess.
She could have read one of Senator Hagel’s recent speeches to understand that we can’t afford a false choice in our relations with Arab states and Israel. She failed to articulate that — and she didn’t leave open the door that we may in fact be misreading the situation with Iran and its nuclear weapons ambitions. I happen to be one that thinks that Iran is on a long-term nuclear weapons course unless we collectively agree to modify that course, involving Iran’s agreement. But my mind is open on that and given our past intelligence failures on this front, we should maintain humility in our prescriptions.
I tried to lob three questions at Senator Clinton:
1. Who would she appoint to the United Nations as our Ambassador? or what kind of person would she select to represent American interests at the UN? Her fellow Senator from New York Chuck Schumer was just fine with John Bolton? Would she be?
2. Would she be the kind of President who gave her staff license to challenge her? to force consideration of every last policy option? to put bad news before good news? Or does she like her team to validate her views and not challenge her? How would she deal with Brent Scowcroft-style or Lawrence Wilkerson-style public commentary differently than President Bush has?
3. What does she think about Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and their political leadership. Should we be engineering regime change and democractic political reform in these states as a high priority? or would she opt for stability in the near to mid term and reform/democratization later?
None of my questions got picked up — but I hope that they might still be in the queue for tonight.
Regrettably, I will have to record her performance this evening as I will be up at the Library of Congress for the annual “State of the Union” bash that the Atlantic Monthly throws with lots of Members strolling through before they head over to the U.S. Capitol.
While they go to mingle, shake hands, and either sit quietly or vociferously applaud President Bush’s spin on the past year, I’ll be offering some of my own views on the President’s address compared to the style and substance of Hillary’s presentation last night.
— Steve Clemons