Friday, May 18, 2007

Hillary flips, Bush v. Brits

Just as the ’08 Republican contenders are running to the right, in competition for conservative primary voters (witness Rudy Giuliani’s embrace of water-boarding), we have the ’08 Democratic contenders running leftward, in pursuit of liberal primary voters. The latter was in evidence the other day, on the U.S. Senator floor, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama felt compelled to ratchet up their opposition to the war.

Which, in their case, required that they do a little flip flopping.

Both candidates had long insisted that withdrawal deadlines were generally a bad idea; just one month ago, Obama had argued that “nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground,” and Clinton was on record, as early as 2005, saying that any deadline “gives a green light to the insurgents.” But now, with the primary season drawing near, with liberal antiwar groups demanding more fealty, and with one of their own ’08 rivals goading them to support a war funding cutoff, they have decided that consistency would be bad politics.

So they, as well as candidate Joe Biden, voted for antiwar Sen. Russ Feingold’s doomed Senate bill that would have cut off the money for most U.S. combat operations in Iraq by next spring. Liberal activist groups, notably, have been signaling that the two top Democratic contenders haven’t worked hard enough to stop the war – and their concerns were being amplified by long-shot candidate Chris Dodd, who put this ad on TV the other day:

“Half measures won’t stop this president from continuing our involvement in Iraq’s civil war. That’s why I’m fighting for the only responsible measure in Congress that would take away the president’s blank check and set a timetable to bring our troops home. Unfortunately, my colleagues running for president have not joined me…(W)e can’t simply wait for a new president. We should have the conviction to stand up to this one.”

Dodd essentially goaded his '08 rivals to move left - and now he's touting this achievement as a reason why liberal voters should take him seriously.

In some ways, Hillary Clinton’s decision to back the funding cutoff conjures memories of the war votes cast by John Kerry on the eve of the ’04 primary season. He had voted to authorize the war in 2002, but then, barely a year later, with antiwar rival Howard Dean on the rise, he felt compelled to vote against an $87-billion war funding bill in order to please the party base. He later paid dearly for that decision in the general election, when the GOP successfully painted him as a flip-flopper.

The big question is, would that work again for the GOP? Have Clinton and Obama handed the Republicans a campaign issue, enabling the next nominee to paint either one of them as “out of the mainstream” “flip-floppers” who voted “against the troops”? That "troops" line arguably might have credence, since even Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who voted against the cutoff, invoked it yesterday: "I don't want to send a message that we are not going to provide funding for the troops." Indeed, while the polls do report that most Americans oppose the war and want a withdrawal timetable, there is still little appetite for a timetable that severs money to the troops; in the latest CNN-Opinion Research survey, 60 percent of Americans said they opposed the Feingold approach.

The answer is unknowable, of course, because none of us can predict the national mood one year from now. But it’s quite possible that Clinton and Obama have little to fear, for this reason: the war is much less popular today than it was in 2003-2004, and it doesn’t take a genius to predict that it could be even less popular in 2008. It’s also possible that support for a funding cutoff might become the centrist position in American politics.

In other words, perhaps Hillary Clinton didn’t need to suggest the other day (at least for a few hours) that she was attaching caveats to her flip flop. An aversion to being pinned down is a longstanding Clinton family habit.

Since the vote on the Feingold bill was actually just a procedural matter – the narrow issue was whether the Senate wanted to bring it up for full debate – Clinton at first said that she was voting merely to do just that (“I voted…to have a debate”), and that she was not actually signaling whether she backed a money cutoff on the merits (“I’m not going to speculate on what I’ll be voting on in the future"), but, hours later, perhaps after realizing that the restive liberal base would view her wordplay as too Clintonian, she then told reporters that, yes, she did back a money cutoff on the merits.

Her final clarification should be enough to keep off her back.


Speaking of Iraq, I noticed yesterday that President Bush walked his dog in the Rose Garden. I refer not to Barney, but to Tony Blair.

The British prime minister, whose staunch support for Bush’s war has wrecked his career (moderate Republicans, take notice), is down to his last 40 days. He and Bush staged a press conference. Let’s look at some of the reporters’ questions:

Exhibit A: “During the course of this visit, it has been confirmed that Gordon Brown is going to be the next British Prime Minister, taking over in 40 days' time. I wonder if I could have both your reactions to that. And, in particular, Mr. Blair, what do you say to those people who are saying now there is a new Prime Minister in place, you should go sooner? And to Mr. Bush, whether, however inadvertently, you once said that you would like Tony Blair to stay for the duration of your presidency. He's not doing that. Do you think you're partly to blame for that?”

Exhibit B: “Mr. Blair, you outlined some very big policy areas there -- in your discussions with the President. Is it really possible, do you think, to make significant progress on them in the time that you have left? And, Mr. President, if I could ask you, is this really still the right man to be talking to?”

Exhibit C: “It’s been five years since a leader of the British Conservative Party set foot in this city. Mr. President, does it surprise you that aides close to David Cameron say that he does not want to be seen with you? And can I ask you both what it means for the prospect of future relations between Britain and America when the leader of the opposition dare not set foot in Washington?”

Notice anything about those questions? They’re all tough, even cheeky. Clearly, the reporters who asked those questions were not awed by the men on stage, nor by the offices that the men occupy.

In other words, all three questions were asked by British reporters.

Bush is clearly not accustomed to that sort of thing. He didn’t like Exhibit A; the reporter was still talking when Bush interrupted by saying “that’s a lovely question,” leavening his sarcasm with his trademark chuckle. Nor did he like Exhibit B; after Blair gave a lengthy response, Bush rebuked the reporter by saying, “You know, it's interesting, like trying to do a tap dance on his political grave, aren't you?” Bush tried to stonewall Exhibit C, by talking at length without answering the question, whereupon the reporter came right back with “What about David Cameron?”

British reporters don’t treat their prime minister as a demigod. They don’t go to black-tie banquets and act faux-chummy with the guy they have to cover (unlike the Beltway reporters who in 2004 thought it was so funny when Bush videotaped a skit that showed him looking for the missing WMDs under his desk). They ask impertinent questions that put the top guy on the spot. They are no different, frankly, than the opposition party politicians who clash with the prime minister in Parliament, in lengthy, regularly scheduled sessions called “Question Time,” in which the prime minister is forced to match wits, think on his feet, and answer for his perceived flaws.

That’s how they do accountability in Britain. Judging by Bush’s reaction to those press questions, it makes we wonder how well he would have fared in the House of Commons.