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Is Panetta's hit on Obama a boon for Hillary?

Is Panetta's hit on Obama a boon for Hillary?
(LA Times/David Horsey)

Did Leon Panetta really conspire with Bill and Hillary Clinton to undermine Barack Obama by writing a memoir that slams the president's leadership skills and foreign policy acumen? That's what political strategist Dick Morris claims.

"I think Hillary put him up to it," Mr. Morris said in a recent interview on a radio talk show in New York City.

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As the man who famously allowed a call girl to listen in on his conversations with President Clinton back in the 1990s when he was a White House political advisor, Mr. Morris is an expert on this kind of inside-the Beltway intrigue. He notoriously wrote a damning tell-all book about the Clintons after his relationship with the prostitute became public and he was expelled from the president's inner circle.

Now, Mr. Panetta, President Obama's former secretary of defense and director of the CIA, has written his own revealing book, "Worthy Fights." While not as sensational as the Clinton book Mr. Morris penned, Mr. Panetta's volume does not make his ex-boss look good. Mr. Morris seems to have no doubt about why Mr. Panetta chose to critique the inner workings of the administration at this particular moment, rather than waiting until Mr. Obama leaves office.

"What Panetta is doing is a hit -- a contract killing -- for Hillary," Mr. Morris said. "Panetta at core is a Clinton person, not an Obama person. By accurately and truthfully describing the deliberations in the (Obama) cabinet, he makes Hillary look better, and he makes Obama look worse. ... And I think he'll get his reward in heaven."

Heaven, of course, would be a Clinton restoration in 2016. Mr. Obama's current low popularity and alleged weakness on foreign policy could be a drag on Hillary's expected presidential campaign. The current conventional wisdom in the pundit class, a view that Mr. Morris spins to its most extreme, is that the Clinton camp wants to put a lot of distance between Barack and Hillary.

If true -- and it probably is -- Ms. Clinton is hardly the only Democrat running away from the president. In the current congressional campaign, Democratic candidates all across the country have been disassociating themselves from Obama. A prime example is Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state who is running to topple Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from his Senate seat. Ms. Grimes has twisted herself in knots to avoid saying she ever voted for Mr. Obama and she would probably go into hiding were the president to visit Kentucky to campaign on her behalf. But on Wednesday Ms. Grimes was perfectly happy to share a stage with Hillary Clinton, who flew in to stump for her. The two of them joined raised hands and grinned for the cameras as if they were running mates.

Centrist Democrats, such as Mr. Panetta and both Clintons, who are nearly as hawkish on defense and foreign policy as Republican neoconservatives, believe Obama's rush to get out of Iraq was a mistake. In his book, Mr. Panetta echoes the same charge against the president as that made by conservatives -- that he should have worked harder to force the Iraqi government to allow the U.S. military to retain a presence in Iraq. The total withdrawal of American forces, Panetta says, created a power vacuum that has been filled by the marauding battalions of Islamic State.

Pushing his book last Sunday on the CBS news show "Face the Nation," Mr. Panetta said the U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State militants will not be enough to roll them back. Only boots on the ground can do that, the ex-Defense and CIA chief said, and Mr. Obama is wrong to foreclose the possibility that those boots will be worn by Americans.

"I don't mind presidents who have the quality of a law professor in looking at the issues and determining just exactly, you know, what needs to be done," Mr. Panetta said. "But presidents need to also have the heart of a warrior. That's the way you get things done, is you engage in the fight."

I'm not nearly as cynical as Dick Morris, so I do not think Mr. Panetta is writing and saying these damaging things about Mr. Obama because the Clintons put him up to it. Still, he is quite effectively opening the way for Hillary to become the candidate with a warrior's heart. This is tricky business for Democrats, though, because no matter how much it may help a Clinton campaign in 2016, Mr. Panetta is presenting a case that could be a winning argument for plenty of Republican candidates this November.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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