Monday, February 12, 2007

Why Hillary will never apologize

Hillary Clinton is never going to say that she’s sorry. Politically, she can’t risk it.

As evidenced from her weekend foray in New Hampshire, the Democratic base is virtually demanding some sort of apology – something along the lines of “I was wrong in 2002 when I cast my Senate vote giving President Bush the option of invading Iraq,” or “I am sorry that I made such a big mistake when I voted to authorize the war,” or “I acknowledge the critical error that I made five years ago,” or “I should have slapped that skirt-chasing stinker and walked out for good.” OK, maybe not that last one.

The antiwar liberals, who can be expected to vote in disproportionate numbers in the early New Hampshire primary, had hoped this past weekend to hear some words of contrition. As one Democrat, a financial adviser in Nashua, told her, “I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake. I, and I think a lot of other primary voters — until we hear you say it, we're not going to hear all the other great things you are saying.”

But here’s what she told the Democratic base: “If we knew then what we know now, I would never have voted to give this president the authority….I'm sorry, what I say is what I believe. I understand that some people disagree or think it's not adequate, but it's what I believe."

Which, I suppose, is one way to equate nuance with conviction.

At various stops in New Hampshire, she said that she “takes responsibility” for her Yes vote. She said that she voted Yes in the expectation that President Bush would keep sending inspectors into Iraq. She said that if she was president back in 2002, she never would have gone to war. She said that if she is president in 2009, she will end the war. (A rough parallel to what Dwight Eisenhower said about Korea during the ’52 campaign.)

And she sought to rally her Democratic listeners by steering their attention to Bush’s execution of the war: “I share the sense of anger, outrage and deep, deep disappointment about what the president did in Iraq…I do not believe it is in American interests to send our young men and women into combat situations when they are trying to figure out who is shooting at them, where they are in the midst of sectarian warfare that they don't understand, being conducted in a language they do not understand, and not knowing whether the person they are allied with today will be shooting at them tomorrow.”

In other words, no apology.

Some observers believe that she can't go on this way - not with Barack Obama (antiwar since 2002) and John Edwards (antiwar since 2005, when he renounced his '02 Senate vote) threatening her on the left flank. John McIntyre, a blogger at RealClearPolitics, argued today that Clinton "will be at too much of a competitive disadvantage in the Democratic race if she continues to dissemble and not give the antiwar Democratic base what it wants to hear on Iraq...(H)er refusal to (apologize) and admit she was wrong only allows her rivals to gain increasing traction on the central issue of the war with the Democratic party's strongest constituency."

But I question whether she will ever take that route. Because if she did try to repudiate herself, she would probably wind up with an even bigger political headache.

Clinton is strongly focused on the swing voters, maybe 10 or 12 percent of the electorate, who will ultimately determine the outcome of the ’08 November election. More specifically, the swing voters in winnable red states, the states that John Kerry failed to carry in 2004. If Clinton was to issue an apologia, she would immediately expose herself to the flip-flop charge - the same charge that doomed Kerry among swing voters. A contrite Clinton would be swiftly painted by her opponents as a waffler who was for the war before she was against it; the Republican National Committee (which is already road-testing the charge that Clinton likes to sing “Kerry-oake”) still has sufficient resources, despite its ’06 defeats, to pound that message.

Some Democratic strategists have long believed that Clinton can’t give the liberal base what it most wants. Kenneth Baer (who is not on the Clinton team) told me back in 2005, “Our last two nominees weren’t perceived as having firm convictions. It rebounded against their character, and that’s why they lost.”

Moreover, Clinton has to guard against the perils of the Romney Effect. I’m talking here about George Romney, not Mitt Romney. A little background, and you’ll see where I’m going with this:

The late George Romney (father of ’08 GOP presidential hopeful Mitt) was the anointed front-runner of the 1968 Republican race – until he sought to explain, in a radio interview, why he had renounced his previous support for the Vietnam war. The Michigan governor complained that, while visiting Nam, he had been duped by the brass into backing the war: "I just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get when you go over to Vietnam. Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they did a very thorough job." Romney quickly plummeted in the polls, and his candidacy soon evaporated; voters didn't feel comfortable about a candidate who admitted that he was capable of being duped.

In other words, a Clinton apology would provide opponents with the opportunity to paint her as a flip-flopper who is capable of being duped. Which is not the ideal image for the first serious female presidential candidate.

One Democratic strategist, thinking ahead to the ’08 general election, tells me that the Hillary camp wants to allay the (unfair) suspicion, especially among some white male voters, that a woman might be reluctant to use military force in a crisis. Hence the desire, during this campaign, to avoid any incident that would allow rivals to paint her as irresolute. Hillary’s people would prefer that she head into a general election, presumably against a tough-guy opponent such as John McCain or Rudy Giuliani, with the kind of tough-lady image that worked for Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Golda Meir in Israel.

The assumption, of course, is that Clinton can first win over the Democratic primary electorate even without hewing to the repudiation ritual, that she can attract a sufficient number of liberal followers without agreeing to take their Iraq litmus test. As evidenced by some of the response in New Hampshire (especially when she said that Republicans fear her more than any other Democrat), she is fully capable of threading that needle. And there is nothing in the early Democratic polls to suggest otherwise.