The attacks in Paris last week could have the effect of empowering the Bernie Sanders campaign for 2016 and confronting Hillary Clinton with an unsolvable dilemma.
The vicious attacks will double demands by reasonable Americans for an increased commitment to defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many, like me, will call for a third Gulf War to battle for civilization. But the left wing of the Democratic Party won't go along. Even though Americans will clamor for action, the anti-war left will resist a commitment of ground troops.
As the consensus of the nation makes itself felt, President Obama will become increasingly isolated in resisting the calls to invade and destroy ISIS. Sanders will, of course, back the president and oppose sending ground troops to fight ISIS.
But what will Clinton do?
From the start of her independent political career, the former first lady has walked a hawkish line on foreign policy. Perhaps to offset the natural concerns some voters would have about electing a female commander in chief, she has gravitated toward the hard line when issues of foreign wars were involved.
Clinton voted for the Iraq War during her service in the Senate. She sought and obtained appointment to the Senate Armed Services Committee early in her first term and voted consistently for appropriations for the Iraq War. In the Obama administration, she is reputed to have been a vigorous advocate of armed intervention in Libya and for arming Syrian rebels.
To preserve herself as a viable general election candidate, Clinton has little choice but to adopt a hard line on ISIS, advocating stepped-up U.S. military action. Particularly after Vice President Biden's announcement that he will not run in 2016, she assumes that she has the nomination locked up, and she will take care to avoid positions that could make her unelectable in November. This caution was evident in the last Democratic debate, when she defended the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act and supported a $12 minimum wage but declined to back a $15 one.
Now, the former secretary of State will likely take a position on ISIS to the right of Sanders. The liberals who dominate the Democratic primary won't take kindly to the prospect of a third Gulf War. As Clinton edges right to be presentable for the November contest, she will alienate increasing portions of the Democratic primary electorate.
The Paris killings will ratchet up the pressure for American involvement. It will become the main issue of the day. All attention will focus on the American reaction. Indeed, France may move out ahead of the U.S. in demanding a tough response, sensitive to the demands of the French voters.
It is easy to see the Democratic Party, which was reborn in the 2004 election as an anti-war party, differing sharply with Clinton on the issue.
Before the Paris attacks, it was a bit irrational for a Democratic primary voter to support Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, over Clinton. Clinton, they assume, is going to win and Sanders cannot. So why vote for Sanders and weaken your candidate going into the holy war against the Republicans?
But after Paris, a vote for Sanders is a vote against sending as many as 100,000 American troops to Iraq and Syria. If Sanders is able to open enough space between his position and Clinton's, voting for him will make sense to Democratic liberals. The higher a profile the issue achieves, the more pressure there will be on Clinton to act like a commander in chief for general election voters and to act as the anti-war candidate for the Democratic primary electorate.
And she may fall down in the middle, unable to be hawkish enough to satisfy the center or dovish enough to appease the left.
Because she is a woman, Clinton has to tack to the right on foreign policy. She must be likened to Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir. No soft peacenik will win. Her strident anti-war background and record in college and law school will work against her. She must live down that image. But can she do so without alienating the left and driving her party into the waiting arms of Bernie Sanders?