Jonathan Alter on the Dictator Dust-up: Clinton, Obama Both Right ! Republicans Wrong

We all had the opportunity for some real political fun this week when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama contradicted each other in the CNN/YouTube debate. If you did not already see it, one of the YouTube questioners asked the candidates whether they would be willing to meet with the leaders of rogue nations, without preconditions, during their first year in office. Obama answered that he would. Clinton answered that she would not. Those are differing positions, right? Diametrically opposed, actually? Well, maybe not, or at least not according to Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. In his July 27 article "Talking to Dictators," Alter wrote: "[o]n the substance, their views are almost indistinguishable." Indistinguishable?Alter's surprising conclusion comes after his own summary of the post-debate fracas between Clinton and Obama:

Over the next three days, hostilities escalated. After first sending out an aide to “clarify” what he meant (a sure sign he thought he had lost the exchange), Obama decided to use the moment to reiterate his position. It’s arrogant, he said, for a U.S. president to view his presence at a meeting as a reward for good behavior, and his refusal to meet as punishment. And no matter what you do, there’s always propaganda from the other side. Hillary, sensing a chance to reinforce the experience gap, called Obama’s position “naive.”This, in turn, gave Obama an opening to prove that he can counterpunch—something Democrats are desperate for their candidates to do more often. It was especially important for Obama to show he was not “Obambi,” and he seemed to relish the chance. But he may have overreached in referring to Hillary’s approach as “Bush-Cheney lite,” and not just because he delivered it too harshly. In 2000, John McCain ran into trouble in the critical South Carolina primary in part by comparing his opponent, Gov. George W. Bush, to President Bill Clinton, the incumbent and a loathed figure inside the GOP. The move backfired. Republican primary voters didn’t like seeing one of their own compared to the hated incumbent of the other party. Today’s Democratic primary voters no doubt feel the same.Hillary took quiet but effective umbrage at the “Bush-Cheney lite” line and scored with a passive-aggressive shot at Obama for betraying the “politics of hope.” This was part of her strategy of trying to turn Obama into a hypocrite every time he says something critical.

Alter managed to compliment both candidates following the war of words, calling Clinton "calm and mature," while describing Obama as having "reinforced his image as a sharp break from the status quo, which Democrats want." Alter declared that Clinton probably prevailed in the short term, but that Obama's favorable impression will linger through the campaign. So what exactly is going on here? The two leading Democratic candidates contradict each other, then trade verbal barbs for three days, but yet they're both sly politicians with "indistinguishable" positions? Is Alter reporting the news, or is he trying to keep the peace among the Democrats? Or, as Mark Finkelstein asked in a prior post, is Alter trying to preserve Obama's potential as a vice presidential candidate, notwithstanding the heated exchange?After carefully explaining away any discontent within the Democratic party, Alter then turned his attention to Republican candidate Mitt Romney, tagging him as a demagogue for comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain. By Alter's analysis, Clinton and Obama would be fabulous diplomats while Romney (and by extension, all the Republican candidates) would be out-of-touch.

"[Clinton and Obama] both echo the line of John F. Kennedy (actually Ted Sorensen, now an Obama man) that “we must not negotiate out of fear—or fear to negotiate.” Hillary has said repeatedly that she would talk to adversaries, and Obama made it clear that he would do the requisite diplomatic spadework before rushing into meetings. Both would take a page from former secretary of State James Baker and open talks with Syria, Iran and other rogue states.Not the Republican candidates. They all apparently feel Baker is wrong and Bush is right—no talks. Introducing a note of demagoguery, Romney went so far as to compare Obama to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who flew to Munich in 1938 to appease Adolf Hitler. No Republicans objected. Their game—which they will play whomever the nominees turn out to be—is to position Republicans as Churchillian (Rudy Giuliani does this explicitly) and Democrats as appeasers. Munich is an old meme in American politics (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan all used it). But it is especially inappropriate today.

You have to give Alter the "making lemons into lemonade" award on this one. The two leading Democrats argue opposite sides of the same issue, but it's the Republican Party that has it wrong.