No more playing nice.
Senators Clinton and Obama now are going for each other's throat, and in doing so, they both expose why neither might not be "ready for primetime" in a post-September11 world.
In last week's CNN/YouTube debate, a questioner asked if the candidates would promise as president to meet -- without conditions -- with the brutal leaders of Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria. Mr. Obama hastened to say he would, and Mrs. Clinton proceeded to blast him, saying that such meetings have to be done under the right conditions or the meeting could become a propaganda tool that strengthens the dictator and make matters worse.
Most experts were quick to agree that Mr. Obama's answer was absolutely wrong. When the president of America meets face to face with the leader of another nation, it has effects on international relations on a host of matters, both immediate and longterm. An American president cannot promise to go blindly into a meeting with a tyrannical dictator, as that meeting could facilitate or enable a calamity.
While any experienced foreign policy leader understands this, Mr. Obama apparently does not, or even worse, has decided to throw caution to the wind. No matter how bright he was in law school, this blind foolishness exposed a dangerous naivety.
So the next day, Mrs. Clinton said that his answer to that question was "irresponsible, and frankly naïve." But instead of admitting he was wrong, Mr. Obama counterattacked, alleging her worldview was “Bush-Cheney Lite.” Those are fighting words among Democrats.
It's now gone to the next level, as both campaigns have cast their surrogates into the ring against each other on television. One battleground for these fights was Chris Matthew’s “Hardball” on MSNBC, where two congressmen squared off: Hillary's Steve Israel versus Barack's Adam Smith. The second was Thursday, where Hillary's Howard Wolfson got into an increasingly sharp and angry exchange with Obama's David Axelrod.
Mr. Axelrod's performance showed that Mr. Obama was trying to recalibrate his position. During the debate, Mr. Obama was clearly referring to meeting with these brutal dictators without any conditions. Knowing his candidate had made a big mistake, Mr. Axelrod started his spin, saying that the freshman senator was referring to diplomacy, not attending summits. This contradicts the debate question, which was asking about unconditional face-to-face meetings.
By Thursday, Mr. Axelrod was back to supporting the idea that our president should be willing to meet face-to-face without preconditions, which Mr. Wolfson again called "irresponsible" and "naive."
This compounds Mr. Obama's earlier national security faux pas, where he said that if we lost two American cities in a massive attack, his first priority would be to make sure that our first responders had the equipment they need. Mrs. Clinton said her priority would be to retaliate.
Her campaign attacked Mr. Obama for failing to grasp key foundational principles of national security and foreign policy. That's absolutely unacceptable for a post-9/11 American president, they said.
They also seek to cast Mr. Obama as a would-be Wayne Palmer president. The president on Fox's popular TV show "24" is charismatic and bold, but prone to dangerous and costly national security blunders because of his inexperience which results in poor decision making.
That's bad news for a future Clinton-Obama ticket.
The top requirement of a vice president is that they're qualified at any moment to become president. In war time, a president has no greater obligation than making sure the person who would become commander-in-chief in the event of an attack or assassination is ready to take on the job.
And anyone who fails to understand that our response to such an attack must be retaliation against our attacker has yet to grasp how to protect our nation. But this internecine squabble also exposes Mrs. Clinton's lack of veracity. She refuses to tell the public what she knows and believes to be true. This could be a disqualifying flaw.
Mrs. Clinton believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, just like President Bush. Her husband and the previous administration believed that as well, as did Britain, France, Egypt, Jordan, and a host of other nations. Even Saddam's own generals believed it.
Everyone believed it, and everyone was wrong. But being sincerely wrong does not make you a liar, and so Hillary knows it's not fair to say President Bush "lied us into a war."
Mrs. Clinton knew she was voting for military warfare with her vote, not diplomacy. She supported the war, but refuses to admit that now. She also promised to continue funding the troops and said not to do so would be wrong, but now she's done exactly that.
She could have chosen to be a unifier. Instead, she's chosen partisan division and political advantage over bringing the nation together. Instead of pursing the national interest, she's pursuing her party’s nomination with statements she knows to be untrue.
Senator Clinton knows that Senator Obama's "irresponsible and... naive" foreign policy mouthings should raise questions about his readiness to be president or vice president. But her duplicitous and deceptive comments about her Iraq vote and the war challenge her veracity and give life to questions about her own ability to execute a competent national security strategy.
These interesting Democrat party intramurals might provide an opening for a strong Republican candidate with a coherent and straightforward national security message.