Imagine if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had managed to get Congress to adopt the ambitious universal health-care plan she lobbied for during the first term of her husband’s presidency.
Now imagine if the plan had turned into the biggest domestic-policy disaster in American history. Suppose it had ended up costing 20 or 30 times what she claimed it would, and that it had such a catastrophic effect on the quality of medical care that hundreds of thousands of people died as a result.
I think it’s safe to say that Clinton wouldn’t be running for president.
Yet the situation during this election year is actually quite a bit more bizarre than in this outlandish hypothetical.
Consider what Clinton said during a press conference recently, when she raised the issue of who among the remaining presidential candidates was ready to become commander in chief.
“I think it’s imperative that each of us be able to demonstrate we can cross the commander-in-chief threshold,” Clinton said. “I believe that I’ve done that. Certainly, Sen. McCain has done that and you’ll have to ask Sen. Obama with respect to his candidacy,” she said.
Calling John McCain a good friend and a “distinguished man with a great history of service to our country,” Clinton said, “Both of us will be on that stage having crossed that threshold. That is a critical criterion for the next Democratic nominee to deal with.”
“There are certain critical issues that voters always look to in a general election. National-security experience (and) the qualifications to be commander in chief are front and center. They always have been. They always will be,” she said.
Clinton emphasized that she and McCain “bring a lifetime of experience to the campaign,” while Barack Obama “will bring a speech he gave in 2002,” in which he announced his opposition to the war.
Let’s review here. This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Bush administration launching one of the biggest foreign-policy disasters in the nation’s history — the invasion and occupation of Iraq. That ongoing adventure has wrecked a country, killed hundreds of thousands of people, cost hundreds of billions of dollars (and eventually perhaps $3 trillion), and created the world’s largest refugee crisis (2 million Iraqis have fled or been driven from their homes).
McCain was and is an enthusiastic supporter of the decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Clinton’s most important contribution to American foreign policy, so far, was her decision to vote to authorize all this — something the majority of her fellow Democrats in Congress refused to do. And she remained a prominent cheerleader for the occupation for many months after it began.
Leave aside Clinton’s dubious claim that she has more relevant experience than Obama for the office of commander in chief. After all, even if this were the case, we care about experience only because we believe that, on average, experience helps people do a better job.
In other words, what really matters isn’t experience but performance. And in regard to the biggest foreign-policy issue of their careers, the performances of Clinton and McCain have been catastrophic.
For Clinton and McCain to emphasize that they’re ready to take over the office of commander in chief is equivalent to the captain of the Exxon Valdez volunteering to steer your supertanker, or the Rev. Jim Jones announcing he’s ready to run the neighborhood Kool-Aid stand.
In a healthy political culture, anyone who had anything to do with bringing about the Iraq fiasco would have had his or her presidential aspirations destroyed by that fact alone.
But in Washington, denial about Iraq runs deep. If it didn’t, then Clinton’s suggestion that she and McCain are especially well-qualified to decide whether to send this country to war would evoke nothing but incredulous and horrified laughter.
(Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at paul.campos(at)colorado.edu.)