HH: This hour, I begin with my friend, Jonathan Alter, Bloomberg View columnist, MSNBC contributor. Hello, Jonathan.
JA: Hi, Hugh, how are you doing?
HH: Well, I’m great. I wonder how you are, though. President Obama’s job approval rating, according to a new Fox poll, has hit a record low this week, 38%. What do you think?
JA: Well, first of all, like I don’t have anything invested in his job approval rating. If you read this month’s Foreign Affairs magazine, I have a piece called Failure To Launch that is very critical of the Healthcare.gov rollout, and I try to explain why it happened and what it tells us about this president, which is not particularly flattering. There are other things that I think he’s done a good job on, but I don’t have anything particularly invested in his approval rating. I would say that there’s not an election right around the corner, and I’m not sure that it’s very meaningful at this point. If it persists, and he continues to have a low approval rating in November, it’ll be bad news for the Democrats, obviously.
HH: The other big headline is from yesterday, when former Secretary of State Clinton discussing Putin’s invasion of Crimea said, “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the 30s.” What do you make of that comment, Jonathan?
JA: Well, I tend to run when people make the Hitler comparisons, because they’re just so facile and easy. And you know, I think that’s one that Clinton would probably rather have back. But you know, it obviously was an act of aggression. I don’t think that Putin is a Hitler. We have, you know, a fair amount of experience with him now. He’s a thug, but he’s not a Hitler. And I think it’s actually kind of similar to what he did in 2008 when George W. Bush was president and he sent troops into Georgia. So these become very complicated situations where the United States does not have as many options as we would like. And it was very frustrating for President Bush at one point at the suggestion of Condoleezza Rice. He polled his advisors on whether they were ready to basically go to war over this invasion of Georgia, and they all said no. So they went for a series of less satisfying options, which is exactly what President Obama is doing now.
HH: Friday is the fifth anniversary of Secretary of State Clinton’s presentation of the reset button to her Soviet, her Russian counterpart.
JA: Yeah, that worked out. That went well.
HH: How did that work out? What do you think?
JA: That’s, well, first of all, you might recall that was with Medvedev.
HH: No, that was Lavrov. She actually gave it to Lavrov.
JA: Oh, Lavrov, right, the foreign minister. But it was when Medvedev was in charge. And you know, was Putin really in charge all that time? Probably. Was having any kind of real transformation in U.S.-Russian relations possible? No. Did it have some short term benefits for the United States? Yes. We got Russia, I just about called them the Soviet Union, because they’ve been acting like the Soviet Union lately. But we got Russia to vote with us, Russia and China, to vote with us on applying sanctions to Iran. They could have vetoed that on the Security Council. This was a little heralded, but extremely important accomplishment of Obama’s first term, that he managed to, with the help of Hillary Clinton, to convince both Russia and China that it was in their interest when they didn’t think so at first to join us in applying sanctions to Iran.
HH: Jonathan, would you do your best to defend Secretary of State Clinton’s tenure at State? What did she accomplish? What’s her claim to be the president of the United States based upon her four years at Foggy Bottom?
JA: It’s a really good question. You know, I traveled around the world with her when she was secretary of State for an article that I wrote about her for Vanity Fair. And I gave her decent marks for essentially for being a goodwill ambassador. You know, she was met very enthusiastically every place she went. She did these town meetings that were very effective in building goodwill for the United States in many countries around the world. That’s an important part of the secretary of State’s job. It is not, however, fair to call her an historic secretary of State. Now part of that is not her fault. You know, the stars were not aligned properly for her to make peace. The truth is that you have to go back to Richard Holbrooke, who wasn’t even secretary in the Clinton administration to find an American diplomat who has actually really brokered peace in a real way, which he did in the Balkans. So I have a feeling that when we look back on it, if John Kerry catches a break and his persistence pays off in one of these areas, that we will see him as being a more historic secretary of State than Hillary Clinton. That doesn’t mean she’s not highly qualified to be president, but I think you’re absolutely right that it’s not as if this is a sure fire calling card for her, her tenure at State.
HH: What is her, what is her resume? I mean, I know the frequent flyer miles, I know the goodwill ambassador, but what would she point to as being her lasting accomplishment as SecState?
JA: Well you know, she is going to have to run on the accomplishments of the Obama administration. And that has some advantages, and it has some disadvantages, but I mean, in terms of her experience in government, it’s pretty hard to argue with. In some ways, she would be one of the more experienced candidates we’ve had for president in many years, unless you think that being a senator and being secretary of State and spending eight years in the White House with essentially a policy position is irrelevant. I don’t. So that’s a separate question from whether, you know, from your question, which is whether any of this was good for the country. I happen to think that the administration’s policy in winding down two wars successfully, and preventing more Americans from being killed or severely wounded in foreign adventures is a good record. I think that as I mentioned, their efforts to isolate Iran was an extraordinarily important thing to do, and not nearly as easy as it might look from the outside. I think the tilt toward Asia and focusing more on Asia has not borne fruit, yet, and they’re now distracted. And there’s some real problems there between China and Japan that could stand much more attention, and Hillary was not able to pivot to Asia as she intended at the beginning of her tenure as secretary of State. And she also wasn’t able to make progress in the Middle East, and we’ll see whether John Kerry can do any better than that.
HH: So the litany of woes…
JA: And for whether, like Morsi, and whether, like, whether, excuse me, when Mubarak fell and all the questions about how we handled things as these old regimes crumbled in the Middle East, second guessing is really easy on that, Hugh. But I’m not sure that the outcome would have been any different, no matter what the policy was coming from the United States.
HH: But if she runs, the litany of woes, Norks are crazy and setting off missiles, China announced a 12% Defense budget hike today, and they are in a showdown with Japan.
JA: Well, what the hell can you do about that? We have no power over that.
HH: Yeah, Russia’s invaded Crimea, Libya’s in chaos, Egypt is hostile to us, Syria has used poison gas, we don’t have any new allies, we’ve got lots of people who are mad at us in Europe. This is Hillary’s legacy, and I’m just curios, do you think she’s going to run, because she’s going to get hit with this every day.
JA: Well, no, first of all, no, the honest truth is that in a presidential election, Republicans are dreaming if they think that 20 year old Clinton scandals or Hillary’s record as secretary of State is going to amount to a hill of beans to the American voter.
HH: It doesn’t matter?
JA: They don’t care about either one. What they care about is whether the American economy is doing better or whether they’re ready for a change and a Republican to do better on pocketbook issues. That’s what the election’s going to turn on in 2016. And Hillary could easily lose if the American economy slips back, or if people for a lot of other reasons are just ready to try something new after eight years of the Democrats.
HH: But she’s, Jonathan, we’ve got a minute left. She’s been a Washington insider for twenty-plus years. She’s a classic Washington figure. Do you think that sells in 2016?
JA: Very good question. Very good question. I think you’re right that the premise of your question is right, that it may be that people really are ready to go for what they have on so many occasions in the past, and that’s a governor, and that governors will really have a significant advantage in 2016, and that is to the detriment, potentially, of Hillary Clinton. And I think a lot, that people who assume that she’s some kind of a shoe-in because she’s the best known candidate are wrong. A lot can happen, and it may be that she is old news, not that she has a bad record, you and I probably disagree on that, but that she’s just kind of old news, and people in America like what’s new.
HH: Jonathan Alter, always a pleasure from Bloomberg View and MSNBC. Hillary is old news. I agree with that, and we’ll see how well that she plays in 2016 if she plays at all.
End of interview.