A REPORT ON NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO THIS MORNING chronicled Senator Hillary Clinton's weekend campaigning in New Hampshire this past weekend, and it showed that her 2002 vote to authorize President Bush to go to war against Iraq is weighing her down with voters, even those who might otherwise jump on her bandwagon.
That's too bad for the Democrats and really unfair to Clinton. I say that not because I'm solidly on her bandwagon; I'm really not sure where I am just yet. I'm certainly not one of these Democrats who, for reasons I can't fathom, can't stand her (the Republicans who hate are enough of a mystery to me, but Democrats?). I say it because this criticism is, to put it nicely, just not the most thoughtful way of analyzing the true character of our candidates, especially this one. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
In the NPR report, Roger Tilten, a 46-year-old financial advisor, asked Senator Clinton during an open townhall forum, "I want to know if, right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake."
Senator Clinton responded in what is what has to be her most well-rehearsed line, "Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now I would never have voted for it. But I also... I mean obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president, who mislead this country and this Congress into a war that should not have have been waged.
After the forum, NPR reporter Don Gonyea caught up with Tilten, who wasn't satisfied with Senator Clinton's response. "I can't listen to her until I hear her say that was a mistake," Tilten said. "And I love what she says about healthcare. I love what she says about capping troop levels. I love what she's saying about the war now. But until she says it was a mistake, I'm not going to listen to anything else she says."
So, Tilten, and the many other Democrats and Independents (and maybe even a few closet Republicans) like him who think she has what it takes to solve some of the country's most difficult issues are willing to walk away from her because of what they think is stubborn pride on her part? Talk about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let me know, Mr. Tilten, when you find that perfect candidate who has it all figured out and who rings all your bells at the same time.
Also, Clinton's answer is not just a politically nuanced dodge, as Tilten seems to think it is, a way to keep media such as the not-so-nuanced New York Post from splashing something like "MEA CULPA!" in 96-point type over her photo on Page One (not that I want to give them ideas, by the way). It's the right answer. Her vote was not a mistake.
What I mean is that the atmosphere of 2002, when that vote was cast -- in the company of many otherwise dovish legislators -- was not what it is today. It's easy today, in the wake of the Iraq debacle, to say how misguided it was at the time to give President Bush (or perhaps we should say Vice President Cheney) the authorization to go to war. We now know that he misused the authority. But that's not how it looked in 2002 when we were still, well, scared.
At the time, most people, including well-informed and smart ones on Capitol Hill, had every reason to believe that grown ups were in charge at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and that the evidence of a "clear and present danger" was solid. Even as someone who felt that launching a war against Iraq was a bad idea, I nevertheless felt at the time that reasonable minds could disagree about this policy, and some pretty respectable people did.
If, in fact, the intelligence the Administration used to sell the war had been true -- and this is all that any of us, including Senator Clinton had to work with -- then it seems to me that it would have been irresponsible to just reflexibly vote against any military action at any time and any place. The vote was not about whether or not war is a good thing ever, and it was not possible for her to predict whether the President would act responsibly. The vote was about whether doing nothing in response to a likely threat (which later proved to be no threat at all) was a better option than allowing the Chief Executive to have the flexibility to act if he really needed to.
In the end, her vote and the vote of many other members of Congress came down to an expression of trust, and when the Administration violated that trust by using its power recklessly, everyone in Congress looked bad. As well they should have. But, like the teenager who tells his parents he'll behave while they're out of town and then rips the house up when he invites 500 of his closest friends to come party, there's only so much they can really do to control the situation. So, she's right that the President deserves the lion's share of the responsibility, but she's not saying she's off the hook either. What else can she say?
People like Roger Tilten ought to understand that and cut Hillary Clinton some slack because, as he said, she has so much more to offer. Do they want her to win, or would they rather let another Republican win again?
Yes, they can vote for Barack Obama, a good choice, too (again, I'm not sure where I stand yet). But for Obama it's all too convenient. He can say that had he been in Congress in 2002 when the vote came around he would have voted "nay."
But, with all due respect to Senator Obama, to whom a lot of respect is due, that's like the difference between really playing in the Super Bowl and being one of those guys who talks about playing in the Super Bowl on sports talk radio. And certainly, as Hillary Clinton is now finding, the real feel of the impact doesn't go away as easily, either.