Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hillary Clinton and the "lonely middle"

Much the way Vietnam played a major role in the 1968 Democratic presidential campaign – driving wartime leader Lyndon Johnson into early retirement, bringing antiwar senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy into the race, and ultimately dooming LBJ loyalist Hubert Humphrey – Iraq figures to be front and center in the 2008 Democratic race. Indeed, it’s already clear that the political fortunes of the candidates will hinge on how well they navigate the preeminent issue of our era.

And the waters may be quite treacherous, because the Democratic contestants will feel great pressure to move leftward, at least during the primary season. Democratic voters are more outspokenly antiwar than the rest of the electorate; as a CBS News poll reported after President Bush’s escalation speech last week, only 14 percent of Democrats favor sending more troops to Iraq, whereas 31 percent of all Americans back the Bush troop hike. And on the general question of either reducing or eliminating the U.S. troop presence, 67 percent of Democrats support those options; among all Americans, the share is only 46 percent.

I was reminded of all this today while monitoring Hillary Clinton’s comments on the NBC and CBS morning shows. She will be squeezed more than her chief rivals; as she tells the New Yorker magazine, "I find myself, as I often do, in the somewhat lonely middle."

Unlike Barack Obama, who can trace his opposition to the war back to 2002, when he was still a state senator, Clinton voted for war authorization. And unlike John Edwards, who as a senator did vote for war authorization in 2002, she has not renounced that vote by calling it a mistake. She seems most concerned with establishing centrist credentials for the general electorate (and, frankly, a female candidate may feel it is doubly important not to seem “soft” on national security), whereas her more antiwar rivals appear to be more in tune with the primary electorate.

On the morning shows, fresh from her latest tour of Iraq, she spoke directly to the public’s general frustration with Bush’s disastrous war of choice. Aside from the dwindling share of Bush loyalists in the general electorate, it’s clear at this point that most Americans – liberals, centrist independents, Republican moderates – would have no truck with Clinton’s reference to “this very bad mission that the president is engaged in.” And Clinton also acknowledged the sentiment on her left flank by talking a lot about “capping the number of American troops as of January 1,” and about the long-term folly of continuing to sustain a troop presence “in the midst of a civil war.”

But that’s where she drew the line. Despite strong support among Democratic voters for a fixed withdrawal timetable, she spoke only of withdrawing our soldiers from Iraq “eventually.” (By contrast, Edwards is calling for the “immediate” withdrawal of as many as 50,000 troops. He is also reportedly topping the polls in Iowa, the first pit stop in the ’08 derby, where antiwar sentiment among Democratic caucus goers is traditionally strong.)

Also, Clinton this morning neglected to explain exactly how she would “cap” the number of troops, leaving the impression that she would prefer not to confront Bush directly. [UPDATE at 5:25 p.m. Clinton did announce this afternoon that she intends to introduce a Senate bill that would cap the troops, as well as require Bush to seek congressional OK for any additional troops.]

On NBC this morning, she was also purposely evasive when asked whether she would favor cutting off Bush's war money. She replied this way: “The president has enormous authority under our constitutional system to do exactly what he is doing. He does have the money already appropriated in the budget (for the escalation)” – whereupon she deftly changed the subject to Afghanistan.

That answer won’t satisfy the antiwar left; in a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of the Democrats opposed to the Bush escalation would like to see Congress cut off his war money. But there is no such majority support across the board. Among all Americans who oppose the Bush escalation, only 43 percent want Congress to cut off Bush’s war money. Clearly, Clinton is hesitant about getting too far in front of the general public sentiment; the White House may be running low on good arguments about Iraq, but there is still some political potency in the charge that a money cutoff would be tantamount to undercutting the troops.

It also should be pointed out that Obama, the media darling of the week, is just as hesitant about a money cutoff. He was asked three days ago on CBS whether he supports such an option. He replied, “We need to look at what options do we have available to constrain the president, to hopefully right the course that we're on right now, but to do so in a way that makes sure that the troops that are on the ground have all the equipment and the resources they need."

Translation: No.

Edwards has the upper hand, at least for now. Since he’s not in the Senate anymore, he can attack his rivals from the left flank, and goad them into taking decisive action, without the need to cast a vote on anything. (For instance, he's pushing for a cutoff of troop escalation funding.) The danger for Democrats, in the longer run, is that all the candidates, in the hunt for primary season voters, may feel compelled to move leftward, to the point where it becomes difficult to seize the center for the general election.

Actually, there may be no such danger if the Bush’s Iraq adventure continues to worsen and centrist opinion becomes virulently antiwar. But, for now anyway, the Democrats may need to heed this warning from the smartest strategist in the party, who happens to be married to Hillary Clinton. As he told the New Yorker last year, “it would be really crazy if the antiwar element in our party thought that the most important thing to do was to beat up Democrats…”

Meanwhile, President Bush gets our quote of the day. Here is our chef-in-chief, talking about his war last night on PBS:

“I don't quite view it as the broken egg. I view it as the cracked egg – that – where we still have a chance to move beyond the broken egg.”