Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the 2012 State of the Union. Photo: Getty
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What Hillary Clinton’s new book tells us about her unspoken pact with Barack Obama

Clinton gets Obama’s donors and operatives, and in return Obama gets the Democratic nominee best able to make sure his accomplishments outlive his administration. What’s not to like?

So far, we know that Hillary Clinton’s new book, Hard Choices, catalogues the following disagreements with her former boss, Barack Obama: She favoured arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, keeping Hosni Mubarak in power longer, taking a tougher line with Vladimir Putin, and easing the economic embargo on Cuba. And all this comes before the book is even officially out.

In the history of presidential politics, it’s taken far less to prompt feuding between torch-passer and presumed recipient. (See, for example, that other politician named Clinton and his heir apparent.) Surely the White House is stewing over these politically-convenient revelations.

Actually, no. “I’m sure they’re trying to stay on top of what’s in there,” says a senior Obama campaign adviser from 2008 and 2012. “I’m sure there’s dialogue going on.” But the adviser discerns no particular “freak-out”, which certainly isn’t visible from the outside either.

What explains the apparent calm? The most obvious answer is the unspoken pact between Hillary’s world and Obama’s: for Clinton, the pact means she gets the Obama donors and operatives who helped derail her first presidential run (and, more importantly, she denies their services to any potential challenger). In return, Obama ends up with the Democratic nominee best able to make sure his accomplishments outlive his administration. As a senior White House aide from Obama’s first term told me: “I think it’s a good thing that she’s the odds on favourite to be president next. … If it weren’t for her, I’d be worried about Obama’s legacy, Obamacare, all those things.” Neither side has an interest in violating the terms of this win-win deal with more than two years left on the clock.

But, of course, the elemental forces of presidential politics have a way of undermining such arrangements even if no one is trying to defect. And, at first glance, the Clinton book looks like it may have unleashed these forces. After all, at some point between now and 2016, it will be in Hillary’s interest to differentiate herself from the current administration so as to avoid the drag that an almost any lame-duck president inflicts. And it will be in Obama’s interest to resist that differentiation, lest members of his own party prematurely decide that Hillary is their de facto leader. (Imagine members of Congress calling Hillary rather than the White House for direction in 2015 and you begin to see the downsides for Obama.) It wouldn’t be hard to read Clinton’s book as an early push in this inevitable shoving match.

But it turns out that there are powerful reasons for the two camps to stick to the arrangement for as long as possible, even through what would appear to be a provocation as serious as the Clinton book. For Hillary, no political persona has been more rewarding than her team-player persona. Her approval rating jumped 10 points when she agreed to become secretary of state in 2008, the significance of which was not lost on her advisers. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes report in their book HRC, sublimating her political ambitions to the Obama agenda was one of her team’s key self-imposed imperatives during her tenure as secretary. “The second she becomes political and partisan,” a Clinton campaign adviser told Allen and Parnes, “she becomes a little bit more radioactive.” 

And so even as Clinton’s book lays out a variety of dissents she will no doubt invoke when taking flak from Jeb Bush, for the moment she’s still far more interested in bucking up Obama than in distancing herself. Look no further than her emphatic comments on the release of Afghanistan POW Bowe Bergdahl. (“It doesn’t matter” how he was captured, she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer, “we bring our people home.”) The stand seemed to signal her posture of choice during the forthcoming book tour, and it was certainly welcome in the White House.

As for the president, as annoying as it must be to have the most popular Democrat in the country distance herself from his foreign-policy B-sides, the broader arrangement still beats any plausible alternative. Consider: if not for the way Hillary’s proto-campaign has frozen the Democratic presidential field, there would already be half-a-dozen Democratic governors and senators trooping through Iowa, complaining to anyone who will listen that Obama still hasn’t closed Guantanamo, arrested any Wall Street bankers, or brought the NSA to heel. “Put aside that she may or may not share all his positions,” says the Obama campaign adviser. “The fact that no one is doing that is a great thing for him.”

As long as Hillary’s 2016 plans continue to bring such benefits, the White House will happily ignore a book that would have the whiff of betrayal under any other circumstances. Like all great marriages of convenience, this one is built to withstand a little emotional distress. 

This article first appeared at newrepublic.com

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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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