Roger Simon: How would Hillary handle Putin?
We don't know how Hillary Clinton would handle Vladimir Putin. But she may get the chance.
Putin's third term as president of Russia will not expire until May 2018, and he has not ruled out running for another six-year term after that. Besides, Putin has a record of staying in power no matter when his titles expire.
Clinton could be inaugurated as President in January 2017, should she choose to run and should she win. And by that time, given Putin's in-your-face adventurism, the western border of Russia could be somewhere in Poland. And the eastern one in Alaska.
What does Clinton think of Putin? We have a hint. When she was campaigning for President in 2008, she made fun of George W. Bush's extraordinarily naive comment that upon meeting Putin for the first time, Bush said he "looked in his eyes and saw his soul."
"I could have told him, 'He was a KGB agent. By definition, he doesn't have a soul,'" Clinton said.
But jokes such as that are easy to make when you are just a candidate. Clinton went on to lose the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, and she became his first secretary of state.
As I have written before, however, her term in that job produced no dazzling breakthroughs or stellar achievements, no solution to world conflicts. Little to no progress was made in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian standoff or our serious problems with Iran and North Korea.
True, Clinton was not setting foreign policy. She was carrying out President Obama's foreign policy. And if she was more cautious than bold, she was likely being cautious at the President's insistence.
And the ambassador of a major ally to the United States did tell me he thought Clinton had done a very impressive and important job as secretary of state by improving the image of the United States around the world after eight years of decline under Bush.
But how would Clinton handle Putin if she really held the reins of power?
Again, we have a joke - probably the funniest and most controversial joke she ever told in public.
At a chilly early-morning rally in Davenport, Iowa, during the kickoff of her presidential campaign in 2007, Clinton was asked by a voter what qualifications she had to handle tough leaders from countries such as Iran and North Korea.
"What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" she said with a smile and then paused as the crowd erupted in laughter.
I was there, and my own impression, as well as that of every person I interviewed after the event, was that Hillary was making a rather droll comment about Bill. It was funny and delivered with expert comic timing.
But her staff went into panic mode. Jokes about Bill Clinton's past indiscretions were very much not what they wanted her campaign debut to be about. Hours later, Hillary held what turned out to be a very odd news conference at Davenport's Central High School, where hundreds of Clinton supporters were brought in to loom over the reporters in an attempt, I guess, to make us behave. It didn't work.
A reporter asked Clinton about her joke and to explain what she had meant so there would be no confusion.
Clinton responded that she was not joking at all, that she was merely repeating the question she had been asked.
Reporters pressed on, however. Did she believe she was equipped "to deal with evil and bad men," and what evil and bad men had she been talking about?
Clinton reversed course. Now, she said, she had been joking. "I thought I was funny," Clinton said. "You know, you guys keep telling me to lighten up, be funny. I get a little funny, and now I'm being psychoanalyzed."
Which was an extremely fair comment. One reporter pressed on. "Some thought you were talking about the bad side of Bill," the reporter said. "Oh, come on," Clinton said. "I don't think anyone there thought that." Well, many there did think that, which is why the crowd at the event had roared with laughter.
The reporters at the news conference seemed to realize they were now treading on very sensitive ground. And the Clinton supporters behind us were vocal in their displeasure over what boors we were being.
So one reporter did a pivot. If Clinton had been talking about dealing with "evil and bad" world leaders, would voters think she was up to the job as a woman? And did she face a "higher threshold" to prove her toughness because she is a woman?
"We don't know," Clinton replied. "A woman Democrat has never gotten the nomination. We will have to find out. I think I am prepared to hit the ground running."
In my next column, I will talk about conservative plans to make sure she never gets that chance in 2016.
Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes.