Clinton-Obama: The Policy Substance

Almost everything I’ve read about Hillary Clinton going to the State Department has focused on the personal reconciliation between the two people. Which is nice. And, indeed, crucially important in an effective Secretary of State. But what I’d like to hear more about is the policy agenda. All Elizabeth Bumiller’s New York Times piece says is this:

Substantively, the two were at odds over the Iraq war — Mrs. Clinton voted to authorize it and Mr. Obama said he would have opposed it had he been in the Senate then — and to a lesser extent over negotiations with Iran. But although Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Obama for being willing to sit down and talk to dictators, he has said he would have a lower-level envoy do preparatory work for a meeting with Iran’s leaders first. Mrs. Clinton has said she favors robust diplomacy with Iran and lower-level contacts as well.

This idea that a relatively small disagreement about diplomacy with Iran was their only disagreement during the primaries is widespread, but strikes me as something of a mutually convenient myth. The Iran thing really was an example of an issue where the disagreement seemed to generate more heat than light. But they had a related, and more clear-cut, disagreement about Cuba policy with Obama indicating a desire to soften the hard line that prevailed through the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations while Clinton indicated a desire to stick with the status quo. Obama wholeheartedly embraced the Shultz/Perry/Kissinger/Nunn nuclear disarmament agenda while Clinton was more equivocal. Obama implicitly criticized the Clinton administration for waiting until its waning days to really buckle down on the Arab-Israeli conflict. They disagreed about whether the US should join the international treaty to ban cluster bombs.

None of it is earth-shattering stuff, but there was a consistent trajectory to these disagreements, and Obama was on the right side of them. People who supported Obama in the primary — or who voted for the Democratic candidate in November — are going to be looking for assurance that adding Clinton to his team, or having a Republican run the Pentagon, doesn’t indicate a desire to move away from the course he outlined.