Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The downside of having your dukes up

While addressing Democratic partisans, Hillary Clinton frequently touts herself as the ultimate stump warrior, a battle-tested candidate who will effectively repel every attack and cede nary an inch to political enemies. But, as evidenced by her behavior at an Iowa event two days ago, this kind of hair-trigger vigilance clearly has its downside.

During a Sunday “town hall” session, Hillary took some questions from the audience (a noteworthy event in itself, because in recent weeks she has generally avoided such interactions). She was soon hit with a zinger from a guy named Randall Rolph, who was disturbed by the fact that Hillary had recently voted for a Senate resolution calling on President Bush to formally designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Rolph voiced his concern that Hillary, by her vote, was essentially providing Bush with a new excuse to foment war with Iran.

Then Rolph delivered the money quote. Referring to Hillary’s Iraq war authorization vote of 2002, he said to her: “Why should I support your candidacy…if it appears you haven’t learned from your past mistakes?”

At first, Hillary in response stuck to substance, insisting that the anti-Iran resolution was merely intended to foster more diplomacy and sanctions, and not to encourage the bellicose members of the Bush war team. But then she fired back at Rolph, by suggesting that he was a Hillary-bashing conspirator who had been instructed beforehand to show up and make her look bad. Referring to the substance of his question, she told Rolph: “Somebody obviously sent it to you.”

Rolph didn’t particularly appreciate the implication that he was an audience plant, that he had not been thinking for himself. He called out, “I take exception. This is my own research. Nobody sent it to me, I am offended that you would suggest that.”

Hillary tried to back off: “I apologize. It's just that I've been asked the very same question in three other places. So let me apologize.” She later added, “I respect your research.”

But none of that erases her initial response, which was to suggest that the adversarial question was evidence of a plot against her. Which is precisely why her first reaction was to push back, hard – in accordance with her dukes-up instincts.

The problem, however, is that Rolph was voicing a concern that is widely shared among antiwar Democrats. An argument can be made that this concern is not warranted – as Hillary told Rolph, the new Senate resolution does not contain any specific language authorizing Bush to attack Iran – but, as her critics point out, Bush attacked Iraq on the basis of the ’02 resolution, even though Hillary now claims it was only intended to foster more diplomacy and sanctions.

In other words, her Iowa questioner didn’t need to have any information “sent” to him by conspirators. All he had to do was swim in the information stream. This Iran issue has been around for several weeks, and it has already surfaced in a Democratic debate. On Sept. 26, John Edwards – clearly referring to Hillary - said this: “There was a very important vote cast in the United States Senate today. And it was, basically, in a resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization…I have no intention giving George Bush the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran…(Y)ou cannot give this president the authority and you can’t even give him the first step in that authority, because he cannot be trusted.”

Not surprisingly, Rolph resented the implication that he was merely a conspirator who was out to get her, as opposed to being a thinking citizen. He later told reporters: “"She tried to ... accuse me of using someone else's words and being stupid. And that offended me.” (Hillary did not risk offending anybody else yesterday. She reportedly held four more Iowa events - but took no audience questions.)

She is besting her rivals in the latest Iowa Democratic polls, so perhaps her instinctive reaction on Sunday won’t mean squat when the caucuses finally commence. But if this incident was at all indicative of how she responds to adversarial questioning, that suggests a character trait worthy of greater scrutiny.