Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Maybe Too Little; Certainly Too Late

Early in the Democratic presidential race, before there were Oprah Winfrey, Caroline Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy, before most of the talk of Martin Luther Kind, Jr., bipartisanship, and the politics of hope, there was Iraq. Senator Hillary Clinton had voted in favor of a resolution authorizing President Bush to take military action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq while State Senator Barack Obama, speaking from an anti-war district in Chicago, Illinois, had spoken out against the resolution. With the war the biggest issue among the American people and especially among Democrats, Obama had been on the right side, Clinton on the right side.

As a Presidential candidate, Obama emphasized the differences he had 4-5 years earlier on Iraq with the Senator from New York. Although for many months behind Clinton in national polls of Democrats, Obama early on was a highly credible candidate in part because of the stance he had taken. Later came Oprah, celebrityhood, and a commanding lead in the quest for the nomination.

At the debate on February 26, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio, Obama highlighted this distinction while defending the approach he has taken toward Gulf War II, once he was actually able to effect the course of the war. He eloquently declared:

And the fact was this was a big strategic blunder. It was not a
matter of, "Well, here is the initial decision, but since then we've
voted the same way. Once we had driven the bus into the ditch, there were only so many ways we could get out. The question is: Who's making the decision initially to drive the bus into the ditch?

Near the end of the debate, co-host Tim Russert asked the candidates "before you go, each of you have talked about your careers in public service. Looking back through them, is there any words or vote that you'd like to take back?" and Clinton responded:

"Well, obviously, I've said many times that, although my
vote on the 2002 authorization regarding Iraq was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again."
Sensing he had something, Russert followed up "But to be clear, you'd like to have your vote back?" and Clinton reiterated "absolutely. I've said that many times."

But of course she hadn't said that many times. Or at all. Sure, Mrs. Clinton had implied it several times, and it was clear that she had learned that her vote was wrong both in terms of policy and politics, but she hadn't so stated.

It reminded me of October, 1968. Hubert H. Humphrey was headed for defeat in the presidential race, in part because of his loyalty in supporting President Johnson's conduct of the Vietnam War, when he finally found his voice and advocated a halt in the bombing of North Vietnam. His poll numbers went up (aided by an actual halt ordered by Johnson) and Humphrey barely- by under 1%- lost an election he likely would have won had the campaign lasted one more week.

The analogy isn't perfect. Clinton was not Vice-President and she acquiesced in the policy of a Republican, not Democratic, President. And Hillary Clinton (like Barack Obama) is no Hubert Humphrey. Still, it struck me that had the New York Senator conceded a year ago that she would have liked to have taken her vote back, she might have blunted Obama's argument, and perhaps even his candidacy. Now, of course, it is too late.

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