- - Sunday, December 20, 2015


Recent terrorist attacks could have political repercussions akin to the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive. Like that attack 47 years ago, the recent terrorist attacks refute an administration’s claims and widen America’s doubts about President Obama’s strategy to counter them. Unlike that earlier episode however, the person who would pay the political price for it would not be this president, but his party’s 2016 nominee.

Entering 1968, Lyndon Johnson was both seeking reelection and to assure America that the war in Vietnam was being won. Because of his enlargement of America’s role there, “his” war and his reelection were inextricably intertwined. Yet, both also seemed his to lose — the first, arising from his administration’s own assessment of the military situation, and the second, due to his previous landslide victory.

The unexpected explosion of a full blown communist offensive shattered the administration’s war narrative, and with it, Johnson’s reelection aspirations.

While obviously very different in their particulars, the recent terrorist attacks — especially ISIS’ Paris attack last month — have remarkable political similarities to its Vietnam predecessor.

Mr. Obama has made it a foundation of his administration that he is successfully winding down America’s Middle East involvement and that terrorism’s threat is being reduced.

In January 2014, Mr. Obama had dismissed ISIS by saying in an interview: “The analogy that we use around here sometimes is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” This September, despite evidence of spreading terrorist attacks — including an ISIS-affiliate’s downing of a Russian passenger jet — and just days before the Paris attack, Mr. Obama stated in another interview: “From the start, our goal has been first to contain them, and we have contained them “

The Paris terrorist attack was a profound shock to America — even beyond its horrific nature but also because it had heard from Mr. Obama himself that his administration was successfully containing a JV terrorist team. Then came the San Bernardino attack.

In a recent CBS/New York Times poll, respondents disapproved of Obama’s handling of terrorism 34 percent to 57 percent — his lowest in this poll’s history — with seven of 10 seeing ISIS as a major threat to America. Terrorism had also leaped to the top problem facing the country, replacing the economy.

Of course, terrorism’s rise as a public concern is not Mr. Obama’s worry the way it was for Johnson because Mr. Obama is not running for reelection. However, it is likely to be very much one to his party’s likely 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Having served in it prominently, Mrs. Clinton is particularly exposed to this administration in general and, because she was secretary of State, in particular to its foreign policy. Mrs./ Clinton is this administration’s legacy — a role she needs to have to hold Mr. Obama’s base next year. She was also the administrator of its foreign policy — a role she cannot escape, as the continuing questions over Benghazi and her State emails show.

Of course, the administration’s problems with the public do not stop at foreign policy. The economy and Obamacare — as well as other deeply divisive issues — are prominent ones, and therefore also ones the Democratic nominee will have to shoulder too.

Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses do not end with the administration. Politically, Democrats are generally seen as weaker on defense issues than Republicans. Personally, Hillary also has her own political baggage accumulated over the longest turn in the public spotlight of any top American politician. For this reason, her standing in the polls is relatively tenuous, frequently failing to gain majority support the general election — despite facing far less well-known opponents.

While less politically exposed to the recent terrorist attacks, than was Johnson to the Tet Offensive, Mrs. Clinton is also politically weaker. Johnson had not only won a presidential election, he had won in 1964 in one of America’s largest landslides. In his first term, he had accumulated a long list of items he could claim as accomplishments. And Johnson had little pre-presidency baggage to speak of.

Mrs. Clinton has none of these assets. In sum, Mrs. Clinton shares much of Johnson’s exposure to a shocking foreign policy failure, but little of his political strength.

While there may be a great chronological separation between the two episodes, they are more politically connected than they first appear. This connection could affect Hillary far more than anyone else who could be nominated next year. To fully appreciate how much it could, simply remember the extent the Tet Offensive, its fallout, and the Vietnam War affected Johnson, and then Hubert Humphrey, who sought to succeed him.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000).

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