Monday, December 12, 2005

Hillary the Centrist

The Washington Post profiles Hillary Clinton's carefully "crafted" centrist position on the Iraq war:

Clinton is confronting the Democratic Party's long-standing dilemma on national defense, with those harboring national ambitions caught between the passions of the antiwar left and political concerns that they remain vulnerable to charges of weakness from the Republicans if they embrace the party's base. But some Democrats say, the left not withstanding, her refusal to advocate a speedy exit from Iraq may reflect a more accurate reading of public anxiety about the choices now facing the country.

When Senate Democrats called on President Bush last month to explain the conditions and establish a schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces, Clinton offered backroom advice on the language but let others take the lead on the Senate floor. When Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) called for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq over the next six months, the New York senator told reporters she was opposed. When her advisers were later asked whether she supports a two-year phased withdrawal advocated by a liberal think tank and embraced by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, they demurred.

Faced with rising pressure to join the intensifying debate over an exit strategy and Bush's policies, the politician many think will seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008 chose as her medium a 1,600-word letter outlining her views, recently e-mailed to constituents and supporters.

In the e-mail, Clinton took responsibility for her vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war, while leaving open whether she would have opposed it, given what is now known about faulty intelligence and mismanagement by the administration. She pummeled Bush for his conduct of the war itself but left murky how long she believes U.S. forces should stay in Iraq. As she told Kentucky Democrats earlier this month, "I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit, and I reject an open timetable that has no ending attached to it."

The first paragraph of this quote is key. The Republican Party has been hugely successful at winning elections by calling Democrats soft on crime or soft on defense, or, since 9/11, soft on terrorism. The opposite strategy -- Democrats winning elections by calling Republicans soft on unemployment, or soft on poverty, or soft on religious intolerance, or soft on 45 million Americans without health insurance -- has never succeeded, at least on the national level, to the extent accusations of being soft on defense have succeeded.

But is this because Americans as a people are inherently warlike and right-wing? Is it because the United States is by nature a deeply conservative nation that defines freedom and liberty to mean unfettered capitalism and every man for himself, rather than defining freedom and liberty to imply social justice and a society that safeguards individual rights and civil liberties?

Or is it, on the contrary, because the people who govern this nation are overwhelmingly from the social and economic strata of American society that is so conservative and pro-business. Since 1972, voter turnout in presidential elections has never been higher than 55%; and most years turnout has been lower than that. Add to that the number of registered voters who don't vote; and the number of eligible voters who don't register, and you have maybe half of that 50 to 55% actually electing a president.

My point in all this is that, when mainstream media sources like the Washington Post speculate that Hillary Clinton is refusing to take a clear position on the Iraq war because her highly sensitive political antennae tell her most Americans don't want to elect someone who bluntly says the U.S. should establish a timetable for troop withdrawal, they are almost certainly wrong. Nobody knows for sure what most Americans want in a president, because most Americans don't vote. It's a safe bet, though, that most Americans do not want the kind of presidents they've been getting, since they don't see any point in registering to vote or in actually voting once they are registered.

Hillary Clinton knows all this. If she wanted to, she could "craft" her message to try to pull in this vast uncommitted sector of the American public. If she wanted to, she could support strategies for increasing voter turnout. But that probably is the last thing she wants. So, just like the Republicans whose approval she lusts for, she pitches her message to that relatively small segment of neocons whose control over the political discourse is way out of proportion to their actual numbers.

Conservatives aren't buying what she's trying to sell, though. They much prefer someone like Lieberman, who, as loathesome as he may be to liberals like me, is at least not afraid to take a clear position on the war.

In truth, Clinton is doing nothing of the kind [confronting the national dilemma on defense, per the WaPo article]. She's keeping her mouth shut as much as she can on the topic in order to avoid getting drawn into the battle -- a kind of political cowardice that will likely backfire on her in 2008. She hasn't confronted anything or anyone, at least not in the way that Joe Lieberman has, and to a lesser extent Steny Hoyer. Those two have attempted to resurrect the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party, taking a realistic view of the progress in Iraq and recognizing the stakes involved.

Lieberman hasn't gone in for the "if I knew then what I know now" ploy that Kerry and others have used over the past two years. First, as everyone saw from the results of the 2004 elections, that dog doesn't hunt. In 1998, safely part of a Democratic majority, all of these people voted to make regime change in Iraq the official US policy and used not just WMD but Saddam's genocide, oppression of his people, and the promise of change that democracy would bring as reasons for their vote. Hillary's husband signed it into law. The only two things that changed since 1998 was that the Republicans took over the government and, after 9/11 and the realization that threats couldn't fester into imminence before taking action, demanded that Saddam meet the terms of the cease-fire and his international obligations -- and then implemented what had been US policy for five years.

Lieberman says he'd still vote for that action, regardless, because the world is better off without Saddam in power in the Middle East. The counter argument inevitably leads back to arguing for Saddam's continued rule in Iraq, in continued defiance of his obligations. Hillary has nothing to say on that topic. "Confronting"? What a laugh! She's busy retreating, pulling her own version of a cut-and-run in order to save her own political skin -- and her allies and opponents have all begun to realize it.

Ed of course is wrong about Clinton having supported regime change, and he's wrong about Saddam's overthrow having made the world a better place (the world is the same place it was before the war, only much worse). But when he writes that Hillary Clinton is a political coward who's trying to save her own skin by walking the fence, he's absolutely right.

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