10/18/2007 10:24 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary's Macha Problem

The following piece is published on the author's blog, WitnessLA, as well as OffTheBus.

It has been clear for some time that, whenever she debates her democratic rivals, Hillary Clinton is determined to position herself as the toughest guy in the room. But, now that---rightly or wrongly--- she appears to believe she's headed for a lock on the Democratic nomination, her advisors admit that she's begun campaigning beyond the primaries to the general election. This means that, instead of merely trying to out-macho Obama and Edwards, HRC is now focused on demonstrating that she's a manlier man than Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney. This would all be fine and dandy if it were not for the fact that Hil's way of proving she is ultra buff---politically speaking---has some very unfortunate downsides.

A prominent example is her vote late last month for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, a nasty, war-mongering little measure that urged the State Department to declare Iran's 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. This Dick Cheney-dream of a move is the rough equivalent of, say, Russia declaring the U.S. Marines a terrorist group. In other words, it's a stance that is provocative at the least and, at worst, a back door, tacit agreement that it's okay for the President to order tactical strikes against Iran's military training bases without Congressional approval. Obama and Edwards both came out against the resolution (although Barak wasn't there for the vote). Yet, Hilary has declared that her YEA vote was simply to "put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran." Right, Hil, just like the Iraq war resolution.

More recently, there has been Hillary's waffling on torture. In last week's interview with the Washington Post, she gave a stupendously fuzzy answer when asked what she thought about torture in general, and the CIA's special interrogation methods, specifically: "It is not clear yet exactly what this administration is or isn't doing," HRC said. "We're getting all kinds of mixed messages. I don't think we'll know the truth until we have a new president. I think [until] you can get in there and actually bore into what's been going on, you're not going to know." When a full transcript of the interview was released, we saw that Hil also said the US should draw a "bright line" about the torture issue, a specifics-challenged stand that doesn't really differentiate itself from that of George "We don't torture." Bush.

This past Monday, when she was on The View, Hillary was again questioned on the torture issue and had a brand new opportunity to say "No waterboarding," no "rendering" people to countries that do practice torture. She didn't take it.

Hey, in some ways, Hillary's macha routine is understandable. Certainly, any woman who wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for the presidency is going to have to prove to a jittery American public that, when it comes to protecting the country and its citizens, the girls can be every bit as tough as the boys. And, after watching decorated war vet John Kerry be unjustly smeared in the 2004 general election as an effete, chardonnay-sipping weakling, incapable of forceful leadership, Hil has clearly decided that some sort of preemptive pugnacity---all delivered with her trademark campaign-trail smile---is the way to go. Frankly, I suspect that if it was legal, she'd show up to debates wearing a nicely cut skirt and blazer, and packing a 9 mm side-arm.

Hillary's badder-than-thou strategy is making itself felt on the domestic policy side of things too. For instance, in an effort to bolster her tough-on-crime creds---which she figures she'll need if Rudy Giuliani gets the Republican nomination---Hillary co-sponsored a lousy piece of legislation called the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007. The bill, which passed out of the Senate late last month, and will soon come up for a vote in the House, capitalizes on national gang hysteria by adding another layer of penalties that will push more juveniles into the federal court system.

The Hardcore Hilary routine is all the more depressing because, if nearly eight years of George Bush should have taught us anything, it's that tough-mindedness and bad-ass-talk are not at all equivalent, and mistaking one for another can lead a country down a mighty dark and dangerous road.

So, listen-up, Hillary, here's the deal: Real leadership consists of more than muscle-flexing, and it isn't focus-group-driven. It is never bad for bad's sake. Truly strong leaders act with a sense of clarity, restraint, wisdom and commitment---and not because they think they ought to look tough.