Tuesday, August 30, 2005

# Posted 12:11 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CAN HILLARY WIN? This month, the Washington Monthly has devoted dueling cover stories to the case for and against Hillary's viability as a candidate for the nation's highest office. Although I thoroughly enjoyed both essays, neither one seemed to have digested the overwhelming lesson of the 2004 campaign: in order to win, Democrats must overcome their party's image as soft on national security.

Recognizing that John Kerry suffered because of his "nuanced" position on the war, Clinton advocate Carl Cannon writes that:

There's no telling at this point how the war in Iraq will play in 2008, but one thing is certain: Sen. Clinton won't struggle the way Kerry did to reconcile a vote authorizing the war with one not authorizing the $87 billion to pay for it. For better or worse, she voted “aye” both times.
Now contrast that observation with the ones in this paragraph, which follows immediately after Cannon's comments about Hillary's consistent position on the war:

Yet another piece of received Washington wisdom holds that the party could never nominate someone in 2008 who has supported the Iraq war. Perhaps. But history suggests that if Bush's mission in Iraq flounders, a politician as nimble as Clinton will have plenty of time to get out in front of any anti-war movement. If it succeeds, Hillary would have demonstrated the kind of steadfastness demanded by the soccer moms turned security moms with whom Bush did so well in 2004.
Huh? It's as if Cannon hasn't even begun to understand what "steadfastness" really means. If Hillary voted for the war and for the $87 billion, how could she possibly get out in front of an anti-war movement? And even if Hillary could persuade her Democratic admirers to accept her as the anti-war candidate, how could she possibly demonstrate steadfastness in 2008 if, at some point between now and then, she undergoes a carefully scripted transformation from hawk to dove?

The strangest thing of all is that Cannon doesn't seem to think either that Hillary has a clear and consistent set of princples that determine her position on issues such as the war or that having a clear and consistent set of principles is important for a presidential candidate.

Of course, a certain degree of pragmatism and flexibility is desirable. But even if hawkish Hillary decides, based on a careful consideration of the evidence, that the war in Iraq is unwinnable, she couldn't exactly get up on the hustings and start talking like Howard Dean or Ted Kennedy about how Bush lied and misled us into war and that the occupation of Iraq was hopeless from the outset.

Or, to be more precise, Hillary could get up on the hustings and do exactly that, but it would allow her opponent to attack her quite fairly as an unprincipled flip-flopper. To a certain degree, Amy Sullivan, author of the case against Hillary, recognizes that she will be vulnerable to accusations of flip-flopping. Sullivan writes that:
Another golden oldie—the charge that the Clintons will say anything to get ahead—is already being revived elliptically by conservatives. The day after Sen. Clinton's news-making abortion speech this past January, conservatives were all over the media, charging that she was undergoing a “makeover” of her political image...

In the six months since, the “makeover” charge has been repeated more than 100 times in the press. Give them another six, and “makeover” will be the new “flip-flop.”
As this passage indicates, Sullivan treats the flip-flop charge primarily as a threat to Hillary's image as a cultural moderate, rather than her post-9/11 status as a liberal hawk. In fact, the only time Sullivan even mentions national security is when she demonstrates Hillary's independence from the Democratic party line by pointing out that "she voted for the Iraq war when that wasn't a popular position for a Democrat to take."

Given that Sullivan is trying to make the best possible case against Hillary, it would seem rather strange that Sullivan doesn't even begin to consider whether national security is an issue on which Hillary will be extremely vulnerable. What I would suggest is that Sullivan's reticence is emblematic of why the Democrats have such a hard time presenting themselves as tough on national security: because they avoid the issue except when Republicans and/or terrorists force them to confront it.

So, can Hillary win in 2008 given that she is so far to the right of her party on national security (at least for the moment)? I actually think the answer is yes. If the situation in Iraq gets worse and worse, it may not matter that she has been relatively hawkish. It's Bush's war, not Clinton's, and its failure would be a Republican albatross.

On the other hand, if US and Iraqi forces bring the insurgency under control and Iraq begins to make substantial progress in its struggle for democratization, Hillary's hawkishness may neutralize the GOP's traditional advantage on national security (although against McCain, nothing may be good enough on that front.)

But what if things in Iraq stay exactly as they are now? What if we continue to lose two or three soldiers a day while a Shi'ite-Kurdish coaltion, supported by a solid electoral majority, consolidates power without bringing the Sunnis in from the cold? What if the Democratic base continues to clamor ever more loudly for a withdrawal while the GOP, sans Chuck Hagel, rallies 'round the President's soaring pro-democracy rhetoric?

In that kind of polarized environment, Hillary may find it impossible to satisfy anyone.
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