It was almost a throwaway answer to one of those earnest citizen questions candidates get all the time at town hall meetings or speaking before a group of high school kids. During the YouTube debate on Monday night a bearded Californian named Stephen Sixta asked:
QUESTION: In 1982, Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since.
In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?
The luck of the draw gave Obama the first answer:
OBAMA: I would. And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them-which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration-is ridiculous.
Now, Ronald Reagan and Democratic presidents like JFK constantly spoke to Soviet Union at a time when Ronald Reagan called them an evil empire. And the reason is because they understood that we may not trust them and they may pose an extraordinary danger to this country, but we had the obligation to find areas where we can potentially move forward.
And I think that it is a disgrace that we have not spoken to them. We’ve been talking about Iraq-one of the first things that I would do in terms of moving a diplomatic effort in the region forward is to send a signal that we need to talk to Iran and Syria because they’re going to have responsibilities if Iraq collapses…
The voice of change. And what does the voice of experience have to say about it?
CLINTON: Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year. I will promise a very vigorous diplomatic effort because I think it is not that you promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are.
I don’t want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to make a situation even worse. But I certainly agree that we need to get back to diplomacy, which has been turned into a bad word by this administration…
New vs. Old. Change vs. Experience. Youth vs. Wisdom.
These are the choices facing Democrats and the country as we move into the second decade of the 21st century. A wildly unpopular incumbent. A sitting Vice President who is not a candidate for president. An unpopular war. The most uneasy electorate in a quarter century. Should we play it safe and elect a familiar face? A Hillary? A Rudy?
Or is it the time to gamble a bit and give a lesser known light a chance? A born-again conservative like Mitt Romney has folks in Iowa and New Hampshire giving him serious consideration on the Republican side. But it is the language of change by Senator Obama that is appealing in an almost sexual way to the electorate. The people yearn for it. They crave it. But at the same time, they are brought up short by the obvious shortcomings of the Senator from Illinois. And the gaffe he made in agreeing to meet leaders that most Americans see as enemies without preconditions only heightened the fear that 2008 is just not Obama’s time.
Hillary Clinton, no stranger to the fine art of carving an opponent to shreds, jumped on Obama’s comment about meeting our enemies with the cat-quick political reflexes of a seasoned campaigner along with an instinct for the jugular which proves how formidable an opponent she truly is.
Seeing the opening, she pounced the next day in an interview with an Iowa newspaper:
Of Obama’s comment, she said: “I thought that was irresponsible and frankly naive.”
Her campaign later circulated a memo to reporters saying it was a “mistake” to commit to presidential-level meetings without precondition “with some of the world’s worst dictators” and portrayed her remarks as showing her depth of experience.
Almost as if she were a mother scolding a wayward child, thus accentuating Obama’s inexperience, Obama shot back later in the afternoon when he called the paper after Clinton’s remarks hit the wires:
Striking back, Obama called the newspaper Tuesday, saying what was “irresponsible and naive” was voting to authorize the Iraq war.
“What she’s somehow maintaining is my statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting was about. I didn’t say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon,” he said, calling this a “fabricated controversy.”
He also referred to Clinton as “Bush-Cheney Lite.” This brought out Hillary’s heavy artillery:
“Well, this is getting kind of silly. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but I’ve never been called George Bush or Dick Cheney certainly. We have to ask what’s ever happened to the politics of hope?
“I have been saying consistently for a number of years now, we have to end the Bush era of ignoring problems, ignoring enemies and adversaries. And I have been absolutely clear that we’ve got to return to robust and effective diplomacy. But I don’t want to see the power and prestige of the United States President put at risk by rushing into meetings with the likes of Chavez, and Castro, and Ahmadinejad.”
The dreaded “s” word. Once an opponent calls you silly – especially in the context of a foreign policy debate – you better step up and prove how serious you are or people are going to start wondering if it’s true.
Obama tried gamely, saying before a private gathering in New York that he, in fact, is the most qualified candidate when it comes to foreign policy:
“Look, one thing I’m very confident about is my judgment in foreign policy is, I believe, better than anyone else in this race, Republican or Democrat.
“And I don’t base that simply on the fact that I was right on the war in Iraq. But if you look at how I approached the problem. What I was drawing on was a set of experiences that come from a life of living overseas, having family overseas, being able to see the world through the eyes of people outside our borders.
“The notion that somehow from Washington you get this vast foreign policy experience is illusory.”
The voice of change speaks again. He is stacking his personal life experiences overseas with Hillary’s experience spending years dealing with the national security establishment both as Senator and First Lady/Top Advisor.
It’s probably enough to satisfy his supporters. But as far as winning converts to his cause, it most likely didn’t play very well. And that brings us back to the large number of Americans who are looking desperately for someone to trust on Iraq and foreign policy in particular.
Torn as they are between the desire for a different kind of politics that Obama is offering and the sure handedness that Hillary Clinton is trying to sell, the Democrats (and the nation at large) seem to prefer the familiar and experienced candidate. But might there be something else at work on the voters’ minds? Could it be that the change they yearn for is a desire to go back—back to 9/10/2001 when the outside world rarely intruded on our somnolence and where the big debates in Congress were over education and prescription drugs?
Back in 2004, Mickey Kaus wondered if we hadn’t experienced “too much history” in the 3 plus years since 9/11. Peggy Noonan echoed those thoughts, asking if what the American people wanted was a Harding-like “Return to Normalcy.”
While the Republican candidates all seem eager to continue making history in the War on Terror, the American people may want to take a break from the harsh realities and hard future offered up by the GOP and choose instead a more settled hand on the tiller. But would a Clinton candidacy not dredge up all the old bitterness and hatreds of the late ’90s? Wouldn’t the politics of change offered by Obama ultimately be more appealing in the long run? Or would Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney be a viable alternative?
In this, the strangest, most fascinating election in perhaps 100 years, those questions will be on people’s minds as they make their decision on who will guide the ship of state for the next four years.
Rick Moran blogs at Right Wing Nut House