The future, not the past, is where the stakes lie
If prescience about the disaster in Iraq were a prerequisite for presidential front-runner status, former Vermont governor and current chair of the Democratic National Committee Howard Dean would be the donkey to beat in his party’s race for the White House.
Dean was right about Iraq when so many others were wrong. President Bush was wrong. A majority of Americans were wrong. And 77 out of 100 US Senators were wrong, including all the Democratic senators that are running, or likely to run, for president. Three one-time senatorial war supporters — John Edwards of North Carolina, Joseph Biden of Maryland, and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut — have recanted their votes and are now vigorously opposed to the war.
Hillary Clinton of New York has not recanted — although by the time you read this, she might have joined their ranks. She’s scheduled to talk about her quickie trip to Iraq just hours after we go to press, but we’re not holding our breath. If and when Clinton conducts her own agonizing reappraisal and admits she made a mistake, it is unlikely that she will become as outspoken an opponent as the other three.
By nature and circumstance, Clinton is famously calculating. As first lady, Clinton was almost as spontaneous as President Bush is today. And although she has loosened up since winning public office in her own right, her position as the candidate other Democrats must beat has fortified her naturally cautious political nature. Caution in a senator is not always a bad thing. And calculation from a presidential candidate is to be expected. But at some point caution and calculation must yield to conviction. If not now, when?
Thanks to Bush — his political lies, and his military miscalculations — the nation is in the midst of its greatest foreign-policy disaster since Vietnam, perhaps in its history. At some point, Clinton’s personal ambition is going to have to intersect with the nation’s critical and desperate need for leadership. Like many others, we’re wondering when Hillary will rise to the challenge. When, Hillary? When?
At least at first glance, Senator Barack Obama’s entrance into the race for the White House is unlikely to put the sort of pressure on Clinton that some might wish for. He has the advantage, like Dean, of being opposed to the invasion of Iraq before most elected officials took that position. And he has the prophylactic protection of having been an Illinois state senator at the time when his current US Senate colleagues came to grips with what the nation now knows were Bush’s lies. But so many were so wrong about Iraq that little, if any, political advantage accrues to those who were right.
The advantage — if it can be found in this sorry situation — will come to those who can help minimize the unmistakable damage, domestic as well as international, that will result from Bush’s mendacious folly. The future, not the past, is where the stakes lie. And, at the moment, the Democratic candidates trailing Clinton and Obama are doing a better job of grappling with it. That may change; it probably will change. But it will not change soon enough for us.
Observations about Clinton’s political manner notwithstanding, she is an immensely promising, if problematic, political talent. But only she can define herself. Only she can demonstrate, can determine, whether her potential is to be realized.
Clinton and Obama have much in common, not the least of which is their ambition. Unlike Clinton, however, Obama, is refreshingly on to himself. He’s not afraid to admit his ambition. And, for now at least, that — together with his undeniable and almost effortless eloquence — is enough to propel him to just a notch below Clinton in the pre-primary sweepstakes.
By most accounts, Clinton and Obama share the same views as other Washington Democrats on 80 percent of the issues. Yes, there are differences that will have political ramifications. Obama’s stand on ethanol is likely to be more popular in Iowa. Clinton’s stand on some issues related to Cuba is likely to be more popular with Florida voters. And neither has been courageous in defending Bush’s war on constitutional liberty.
But the next presidential election is going to be won or lost on the war in Iraq. The three best-known possible Republican candidates — John McCain of Arizona, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and Rudolph Giuliani of New York — support Bush’s Iraq war. And McCain does them all better by calling for even more Iraq-bound troops than Bush. (Maybe those rumors that McCain is unhinged are not entirely scurrilous.)
If Clinton and Obama want to be worthy of election, they had better catch up to their fellow Democrats in their approach to the future of Bush’s war.