Hillary Clinton has obvious attractions for liberals. She offers a solid chance of extending Democratic occupancy of the White House for four or eight years. She would realize the dream of a female president. She would appoint justices to stop the rightward drift of the Supreme Court. She would drive the tea party even crazier.
Not to mention that she's one of them. She tried to overhaul health insurance long before Obamacare. When she was a senator, the liberal blog Daily Kos gave her a lifetime rating of 94.4 (100 being the most liberal), the same as Ted Kennedy. Her 1990s credo was "It takes a village to raise a child"—a collectivist mantra if there ever was one.
But if they mass behind Clinton's presidential candidacy, liberals will be making a Faustian deal. They may get the White House. But if they expect her to implement an ambitious domestic agenda, they are in for a painful shock. It's not that she wouldn't like to achieve it. It's that her priorities will make it impossible.
Those priorities became clear this week in her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, which she used to highlight how much more hawkish she is than that guy she used to work for.
She thinks the United States should have done more to help the Syrian rebels, must get over its habit of "hunkering down and pulling back," and needs an "overarching" strategy to combat Islamic terrorism. "I'm thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat," she said.
Of Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression against Ukraine, she implicitly blamed Barack Obama for not being assertive enough: "In the world in which we are living right now, vacuums get filled by some pretty unsavory players."
This is not an about-face for Clinton, who has always been partial to solutions that involve bombs, bullets and boots on the ground. She voted for the Iraq invasion. She pushed Obama to use air power against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
As secretary of state, she favored a bigger surge in Afghanistan than Obama ultimately approved, and she wanted to keep combat troops there longer than he did. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that he heard her tell Obama, "The Iraq surge worked"—and that she opposed it only for political reasons.
Hawks would feel vindicated if Clinton were elected. The Weekly Standard, a tireless advocate for the Iraq War and any other possible war, excerpted The Atlantic interview under the headline, "Special Guest Editorial: Obama's Foreign Policy Failures." Right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham said, "She sounds like John McCain."
What all this means is that Obama's presidency would be a hiatus between the military aggressiveness of George W. Bush and the military aggressiveness of Hillary Clinton. Obama's effort to wean us from perpetual intervention would be abandoned.
Apart from their views on foreign policy, liberals should worry. A Clinton presidency would mean surrendering any hope of shifting federal resources to problems like poverty, health care, urban blight, transportation and student loan debt. Wars are expensive, and money spent on nation-building in Iraq or Afghanistan or some other place is money that can't be spent on nation-building at home.
Wars are also a major reason the government runs a big deficit every year. A big deficit is the enemy of liberal initiatives, because Republicans don't have to oppose them on the merits: They can just say, "How are we going to pay for it?" Or, "The deficit is already out of control."
By refusing to pay for his wars with higher taxes, and thus inflating the deficit, Bush made it difficult if not impossible for Democrats to spend more money on their favorite programs. Since 9/11, discretionary spending unrelated to defense and security has dropped sharply as a share of GDP. Defense spending, however, has climbed.
A Democrat prepared to exercise restraint abroad could economize on military outlays and channel the savings to liberal causes that have gone begging under Bush and Obama. Under Clinton, there would be no savings to divert. For that matter, the military would probably require additional funds, which would be taken from elsewhere in the budget. She would be hard-pressed even to block cuts in Social Security and other entitlements.
The allure of a Faustian deal is getting something you desperately want. The drawback is losing something even more dear.