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Hillary Clinton’s Atlantic interview shows she’s not inevitable

Spencer Platt

1. The most important unanswered question about Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign (which she more or less confirmed to Jeffrey Goldberg in an Atlantic interview) is how she's changed since 2008. The answer is that she hasn't — at least not on foreign policy.

2. Read the interview and you quickly see Clinton's strength as a candidate: she is more fluent, informed and authoritative in affairs of state than any of her plausible challengers. In the 2008 race, she famously posed the 3am phone call test: did voters trust her or naive, inexperienced Barack Obama to answer the kinds of calls that wake the president at 3am? She lost that campaign, but her subsequent experience as Secretary of State has only widened her lead on that question.

3. Read the interview, however, and you also see Clinton's weakness as a candidate: she is more hawkish than the post-Iraq Democratic Party. She is upset that she lost the internal administration debate over whether to intervene in Syria. She's focused on the expansive ambitions of radical jihadists. She takes a hard line on Iran's nuclear ambitions. She's frustrated that Obama thinks more about the dangers of action than the dangers of inaction. She's dismissive of Obama's shorthand foreign policy principle "don't do stupid stuff". She  wants the country that defeated fascism and communism to develop a grand — and more interventionist — strategy to guide its leadership of the world. She sounds like a Democrat from 2002 rather than 2014.

4. She presents Democrats, to a surprising degree, with the same choice they faced in 2008. There's no doubt that Clinton is more prepared to answer that 3am call. But they may not like the call she makes immediately after. There are a lot of liberals out there who would prefer a nuclear Iran to a war with Iran. Many of them believe, rightly or wrongly, that President Obama quietly agrees with them. Clinton does not agree with them, and they're going to know it.

5. I remain skeptical that Rand Paul can win the Republican nomination for president. But if he does, it will set up a race in which the Republican is significantly more dovish than the Democrat. That will scramble political coalitions in unusual, and possibly significant, ways. For instance, Millennials have swung hard towards Democrats in recent years, but they're also much more dovish than older generations. Seniors, on the other hand, have become more Republicans, and are also more hawkish.

6. There is a pattern that has emerged in almost every recent interview Clinton has given: liberals walk away unnerved. She bumbled through a discussion of gay marriage with Terry Gross. She's dodged questions about the Keystone XL pipeline. She's had a lot of trouble discussing income inequality. I initially chalked some of this up to political rust. I am quickly revising that opinion.

7.  In general, people underestimate the convictions politicians have and overestimate the cynicism of their positions. The interview with Goldberg is being analyzed as a calculated gamble on Clinton's part to distance herself from the Obama administration, and perhaps it is. But it matters because it's also much more than that: this is what Clinton really believes. It's what she believed before the Obama administration, it's what she fought for inside the Obama administration, and it's what she believes after leaving the Obama administration. This is insight into the kind of president Clinton would be, not just the kind of candidate she would be.

8. Political campaigns are decided not just by what candidates say but by which of their statements supporters believe to be true. One advantage Obama had in the Democratic primary was that even when he rhetorically moved towards the middle his liberal base didn't really buy it; his repeated assertions that he opposed gay marriage were never taken very seriously by his supporters, for instance. Clinton will have the opposite problem — and, potentially, the opposite advantage: She has clear and substantive disagreements with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and so her efforts to move to the left during the primary will often be viewed skeptically. But those disagreements will make it harder for Republicans to paint her as a liberal who's exactly like Barack Obama.

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