If Hillary Clinton loses the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama, many pundits will blame her husband, the former president. First, they will say, Bill Clinton diminished Hillary's stature by demanding too much of the spotlight for himself, and then he undercut her candidacy with ill-considered remarks about race and politics in South Carolina. Others will point to the Kennedy factor, the decision by JFK's brother and daughter to sprinkle what remained of Camelot's stardust on the young Illinois senator. And many will, of course, simply conclude that Senator Clinton was doomed by her opponent's transcendent charisma and the tendency of voters to swoon first and ask questions later.
Whatever truth there might be in these analyses, they will all miss the more important point. Assuming Hillary Clinton is denied the nomination, the turning point in the 2008 Democratic campaign will have occurred six years earlier, on October 11, 2002. On that date, the newly elected junior senator from New York joined 76 of her colleagues, including a majority of Democrats, in authorizing George W. Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein's brutal regime in Iraq.
That vote, more than anything else, has been Senator Obama's trump card in the current race for the White House. It effectively blunts the strongest argument Clinton can offer in support of her candidacy. Whenever she touts her superior preparation for higher office, Obama quickly reminds voters that experience is no substitute for judgment, citing his early and consistent opposition to the Iraq War. The charge is devastating, particularly when leveled before an audience of left-leaning Democrats and independents: on the most important question of the past seven years, he was right and she was wrong.
Senator Clinton's response has, to this point, been both consistent and consistently ineffective. Unlike John Edwards, she refuses to admit error, apologize, and beg for the mercy of the electorate. The first woman president, she reasons, cannot be elected from a position of weakness. Instead, she argues that she did the best she could with the information she had at the time. She believed, as most experts did, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and she was persuaded that he would not surrender them to inspectors without the coercive threat of a military invasion pushing him in the proper direction. She never intended war to be anything but a last resort.
It is a weak response, and she delivers it without conviction. To some extent, of course, she is the victim of the unforgiving power of hindsight. The weapons were never found and the Bush administration conducted the war with such staggering ineptitude that arguments that were judged moderate and reasonable only a half decade ago now seem thoroughly discredited. Those who chose to put any faith at all in the wisdom and restraint of George W. Bush appear, in retrospect, hopelessly naïve, a word that debate moderator Wolf Blitzer unhelpfully lobbed in Hillary's direction during Thursday night's debate in Los Angeles.
Still, let us not weep over the unfairness of it all. Hillary Clinton's vote on the authorization of force clearly had its cynical side. We'll never know the degree to which she truly believed that President Bush would allow the inspectors to complete their work, but we do know this: Senator Clinton had already decided to run for president and she knew without a doubt that this vote would help define her to any future electorate.
She simply could not be on the wrong side of a war that the United States might win. Many of her colleagues made that mistake in 1990, when an earlier Bush asked for an earlier authorization to engage in combat with Saddam Hussein. When Kuwait was liberated quickly, with few American casualties and with the support of a broad international coalition, those Democrats who had opposed the war were quickly and effectively tarred as Neville Chamberlain's stepchildren.
Hillary Clinton did what she assumed was the safe thing: she took a gamble that Saddam would fall, that the weapons would be found, and that the mission would, in fact, be accomplished. Indeed, it probably didn't seem, from the vantage point of 2002, to be all that big of a gamble. Nearly everyone was certain that the WMDs were there. Besides, even if the war went poorly, Americans would blame President Bush rather than the members of Congress who erroneously put their faith in his judgment. Senator Clinton likely calculated that most of her serious opponents in 2008—Edwards, Joe Biden, etc.—would carry similar baggage into the campaign. She simply never counted on the possibility that she would be outfoxed by some obscure, ambitious Illinois state legislator who was busy announcing his opposition to the war before small crowds of Chicagoans.
Regardless, her vote is on the record and there is nothing she can do to change that fact. If things go badly for her on Super Tuesday, she may never get another opportunity to explain herself. On the other hand, given the Democrats' rules about distributing delegates in proportion to each state's vote (rather than the winner-take-all scheme allowed by the GOP), it seems more likely that the campaign will persist past February 5 and that still more debates will occur.
In my capacity as an unpaid campaign adviser to Democrats and Republicans alike, allow me to propose a new, improved response for Senator Clinton should she once again be asked to defend her vote on the Iraq War:
"My opponent claims to have 20/20 hindsight, but he had absolutely no idea whether or not Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Yet Senator Obama opposed putting any pressure on the Iraqi government to deal honestly with the weapons inspectors. His position, therefore, is an extreme one. He is saying that the United States should never act against, or even put undo pressure on, an enemy regime that may have chemical, biological, or nuclear agents. That is, in my view, a dangerous position for a future president to hold. Before you decide between us, consider this. Had the weapons of mass destruction been found in Iraq, my explanation of what I believed back in 2002 would be exactly the same as it is today; Senator Obama's, on the other hand, would be completely different.
"Like all of you, I have great respect for General Colin Powell and his word at the United Nations meant a lot to me. Further, I believe that Americans must, in a time of crisis, give at least some benefit of the doubt to their Commander in Chief. I will expect the same thing from Congress when I become president, and so will Senator Obama. President Bush promised us that he had hard evidence of WMDs in Iraq. He pledged that he would go to war only as a last resort.
"It is a tragic and unforgivable fact that he lied to Congress and the American people. History will judge him harshly for that. But I don't believe that you can simply assume without evidence, especially in a time of a great national crisis, that your president is a liar. If you want to call that naïve, feel free. I consider it patriotic. If I knew then what I know now, of course I would have voted against the authorization. But I had no way of knowing that George Bush was lying and neither did Senator Obama."
Sure, there is nothing here that will satisfy anyone who strenuously opposed the war from the start. But those Democrats have already cast their lot with the Obama campaign, and Hillary Clinton will never win them back. Instead, she needs to put her opponent of the defensive by appealing to the majority of voters who also mistakenly, but patriotically, put their faith in their president back in the dark days of 2001 and 2002.
Make Senator Obama describe exactly when he thinks America should go to war. Let him explain why he thinks that WMDs in the hands of America's enemies are no big deal. Require him to reflect on the relative costs and benefits of presupposing, without evidence, that the President of the United States is a liar. If nothing else, a spirited, affirmative defense by Senator Clinton would sound better than the weak, lawyerly response that she is currently offering. It might even save her campaign.
(Quick disclaimer: I opposed the war from the beginning. My position, however, is different from both Hillary Clinton's and Barack Obama's. I also believed that Saddam Hussein probably had weapons of mass destruction. I simply didn't regard that as something worth going to war over. I would have considered the war unjustified even if the Army had uncovered nerve gas factories and nuclear stockpiles. History shows that diplomacy is far more effective at limiting the spread and use of WMDs than is military action.)