Hillary Clinton probably “won” the second Democratic presidential debate last night. She uttered no damaging gaffes that might have imperiled her ’08 frontrunner status; she sounded crisp and concise (even while uttering semi-truths); she floated above the fray, refusing to accept underdog John Edwards’ invitation to duke it out; she even took charge of the debate itself, in the closing moments, when she told CNN host Wolf Blitzer that his questions about hypothetical future crises were essentially irresponsible.
But, on certain substantive matters, some of her remarks still didn’t pass the smell test.
As I mentioned here last Friday, she is vulnerable to the charge that she failed to perform due diligence before she voted in 2002 to give President Bush the option to invade Iraq. During that fateful autumn, she didn’t bother to read the latest National Intelligence Estimate, a classified document available to all senators, which clearly indicated that Bush’s case against Saddam Hussein was far from a slam dunk. According to the NIE, many dissenting experts in the intelligence community were strongly questioning the White House claims that Hussein was in close cahoots with al Qaeda, and that he was poised to attack America with mass weaponry.
During the debate last night, Clinton was asked whether she regrets her failure to read that 90-page document. She replied: “I was thoroughly briefed, I knew all the arguments. I knew all of what the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the State Department were all saying. I sought out dissenting opinions.” She then tried to pivot, blaming the war on Bush and on the Iraqis “who have failed to take advantage” of the “opportunity” to build a democracy.
Blitzer then asked again whether she regretted her failure to read the NIE document. Her second reply might sound familiar: “I feel like I was totally briefed. I knew all the arguments that were being made by everyone from all directions.”
But if she indeed “knew all the arguments,” even without bothering to read the NIE, then why did she endorse the drumbeat for war - at a time when there was abundant expert evidence that the White House was hyping its case? (Clinton, Oct. 10, 2002: “I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt.”)
Some antiwar liberal primary voters might well be asking themselves that question today. But she has an answer for that as well. Sort of.
She contended last night (reprising one of her old lines) that she actually didn’t endorse a war when she voted Yes back in 2002. Rather, she insisted that she voted Yes on the expectation that Bush would first pursue further diplomatic options – such as building more international support for the idea of sending U.N. inspectors back into Iraq. But she said that Bush snookered her by moving swiftly to the war option; as she argued last night, “What was wrong is the way this president misused the authority that some of us gave him, and that has been a tragedy.”
But her argument contained a key flaw. The ’02 war resolution did not contain any language that would have compelled Bush to pursue further diplomatic options; rather, it permitted the Decider to decide on his own whether “further diplomatic or other peaceful means…will not adequately protect the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”
So whatever Hillary might have thought she was endorsing (especially in hindsight) was not covered in the actual text. Indeed, when she had an opportunity, during the ’02 debate, to truly an endorse diplomatic language, she voted no. Some Democratic senators floated an amendment that would have specifically required Bush to pursue more diplomacy, and, if diplomacy failed, Bush then would have been required to ask Congress for a separate war resolution. Only 24 senators voted for this amendment. Clinton was not one of them.
Fortunately for Clinton, however, none of her top rivals last night pointed out these flaws in her arguments. Perhaps that would have been tough to do in a sound bite, anyway. Edwards, who badly needs to pry Democratic primary voters away from Clinton, might have been the guy to try it, but was not well positioned to zap her on the NIE report - because, as he acknowledged last night, he didn’t read it either before casting his own Yes vote.
Edwards did try to skewer Clinton for another war vote. Last month, she and Barack Obama decided - for the first time - to oppose an Iraq war funding bill, clearly in response to pressure from the liberal party base. Since Edwards couldn’t attack them for their actual votes (because he agrees with them), he opted to attack them for the way they cast their votes. They did so very quietly, at the eleventh hour. So, at the debate last night, Edwards complained, “(They) didn’t say anything about how they were going to vote until they appeared on the floor of the Senate…They were among the last people to vote.” In Edwards’ view, their behavior demonstrated that they don’t have the guts to lead; or, as he put it, “it’s the difference between leading and following.”
Edwards would have loved it if Clinton had risen to the bait and taken him on, but she smartly allowed Obama to do the job. And he did. Despite his early reputation as a guy who disdains traditional political pugilism, he can obviously box when necessary. In response to Edwards’ taunt on the funding vote, he quickly noted that, while Edwards as a senator was voting Yes on the war in 2002, he, Obama, was already speaking out against a U.S. invasion. Addressing Edwards directly, he said: “I opposed this war from the start. So you were about four and a half years late on this issue.”
(Edwards kept hitting the “leadership” theme all night, arguing that “it is the job of the president of the United States…to lead.” Yet when he was asked at one point whether he could support the concept of gay marriage, he chose not to lead. He punted by saying that it was up to the states to decide.)
Anyway, Clinton’s Iraq war record, and her fact-challenged responses last night, probably won’t hurt her much, except among the most dedicated antiwar liberal fact-checkers. I sensed this late in the debate, when regular folks in the audience were invited to pose questions. Here’s a sampling:
Why doesn’t my son, who’s serving Iraq, have the right to go to the VA hospital of his choosing? What’s the best way that I can save for my kids’ college education, as well as for my own retirement? What would be on your issue agenda for the first 100 days in office? How could we best handle the humanitarian crisis in Darfur?
In other words, most voters probably agree with Clinton’s argument that it’s a waste of time to “argue the past.” They’re far more focused on the future. If her rivals are going to take her down, they won’t do it by re-fighting the events, and miscalculations, of 2002.