Over the past few days, I have read and watched the inevitable postmortems on Hillary’s campaign as pundits attempt to explain how HRC went from a planned coronation to being the houseguest who will not leave. The analysis routinely focuses on a number of factors – usually beginning with her failure to sense the change mood, to poor planning for caucuses, to wasteful spending to a myriad of causes, but one that is rarely mentioned, to me seems to be the obvious elephant in the room – her vote on the Iraq War.
Yes, the fact that she voted for the authorization of force has been mentioned, but it has not been analyzed as a reason for her defeat – not truly. Here is my attempt to explain that it was this vote that caused many voters to begin looking for an alternate candidate.
In 2002 most people who paid attention knew full well that G. W. Bush was marching this country to war with Iraq. All of the media covered it (and indeed seemed to support it). During this time period a substantial portion of the democratic activist base saw this and strongly opposed it. Also at the time, it was apparent that the majority of the country was falling for the Bush Administration’s constant attempts to conflate Iraq with the 9-11 attacks and, helped by a media establishment that abdicated all responsibility for journalism, most Americans were supportive of the War.
The base looked to Democratic leaders in Congress to challenge the claims of the administration – indeed they looked to Hillary Clinton herself. She let that base down – and indeed became one of the most active democratic cheerleaders against Iraq. Why did she do this? She has offered various explanations since the vote – none of which admit a mistake and moreover all of which lack creditability. Perhaps we will never know exactly what was in Hillary’s mind at the time of the vote, but I can tell you want many Democrats believe. Whether true or not, many see her vote as being purely political. She was already thinking of a run for the Presidency. She made a calculation that a vote for the War would show her as a strong leader willing to use force to defend the nation, thereby negating any questions about her future qualification as Commander-in-Chief. On the other hand, she felt that a vote against the War would open her up to criticism as being a left wing “peacenik.” Thus, the reasoning goes, she made the vote, not because she believed it was the right thing to do, but rather because it would help her become president.
The essence of a purely political act is not doing what you think is right, but rather doing what you think will benefit you. This is what the activist base saw Hillary do in 2002. Whether true or not, they knew in their hearts that Hillary, in her heart, agreed with them that the war was wrong. She was too intelligent, too experienced, too – like them- not to know that going to Iraq was a disaster. If she voted for it, she had to be doing it to help herself. It is one thing to make a purely political vote on a spending bill – okay there is a bridge to no-where – but maybe she got something for it. But it is completely another thing to make such a vote on the decision to go to war. People die in wars. It is absolutely immoral to vote to go to war if you do not believe in the justness of the war. It is the moral equivalent of murder. One can forgive a mistaken, but good faith, belief in such a vote, but not a politically calculated vote of self-interest.
It was with this vote that Hillary lost the activist base of the party. Had the war proceeded well, she might have pulled off her presidential bid. But the war didn’t go well. As the casualties mounted and as the war drug on, it became clearer and clearer that the war was, as the activist had always expected, a disaster. As this happened, the small activist base grew. Those who had originally ignored the issue or even supported the war began to join the anti-war contingent. They began to ask how did we get here. They looked at Hillary (and others in Congress) and asked “how could you have let this happen?’
Some like Edwards and Kerry apologized, but Hillary didn’t. She stood by her decision as being the correct one; then she tried to say that she hadn’t voted for war, but for diplomacy. The fallacy of the argument was clear. Hillary was seen as saying anything to help herself. The Clintons have always been seen as being willing to say or do anything to win. This is the narrative that has grown up around them since the early ‘90s. It was easy to see her vote on the war as fitting into that pattern. The more she tried to finesse her vote, the more she looked like a purely political creature with no principals. The more she looked like she had no principals, the more people grasped for something new – for change. People began looking for an alternative, for someone who would offer a way out of the mess in Washington. There is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. Barrack Obama was the perfect person, with the perfect message to capitalize on the mood of the party.