Monday, December 12, 2005

A Delicate Balance

Love her or hate her, you have to admit that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s approach to the war has been, shall we say, nuanced.

Clinton has stayed steadfastly on a centrist path, criticizing President Bush but refusing to embrace the early troop withdrawal options that are gaining rapid favor in her party. This careful balance is drawing increasing scorn from liberal activists, frustrated that one of the party’s leading lights has shown little appetite to challenge Bush’s policy more directly and embrace a plan to set a timetable for bringing U.S. forces home.

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Some analysts call her approach a classic example of the kind of third-way triangulation — putting herself at odds not only with the Republicans but also with much of her own party — practiced by her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Others say she has been on target in her approach. “I think she’s been very measured and very thoughtful and very consistent with her criticisms,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Clinton’s support for the war has prompted a challenge from Jonathan Tasini, an antiwar Democrat, in next year’s Senate primary in New York. She remains overwhelmingly popular among Democrats in New York, so the challenge may be more an irritant that a real threat. But it could be a harbinger of a more significant challenge from the left to Clinton in 2008, if she decides to seek her party’s presidential nomination.

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In Clinton’s political circle, the bet is that her approach is good politics for a general election campaign, that support for the war in Iraq and the campaign against terrorism will inoculate her against Republican criticisms that the Democratic Party has been soft on defense. Neither the New York senator nor her husband has backed away from advocacy of seeing the Iraq mission through to a successful conclusion.

But the effort to put one foot squarely with those attacking Bush and another with those who say the United States cannot leave Iraq too soon has drawn criticism that she has adopted her position for reasons of political expediency, even among some Democrats who recognize the complexity of the choices facing them. “Hillary has made herself look political on this rather than principled,” said Robert L. Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.

Based on some of the more florid e-mails that I get from groups like MoveOn.org, Sen. Clinton’s approach to the war borders on Lieberman-like caving to the Republicans. Frankly, I doubt that the senator is too upset by having the more liberal groups attack her for this stand; after all, the liberal wing of the Democratic party is not unlike its polar opposite in the GOP; famous for its bark and less impressive with its bite when it comes to actual poll numbers. The base of the party is probably more in line with Sen. Clinton’s point of view than either the left or the Republicans would like to admit.

Tangentially, the Republicans are going to find themselves hard-pressed to use the war in Iraq as a club against all but the most anti-war Democratic candidate; their line thus far is that the Democrats haven’t come up with a unified plan for extricating the US from the war. That’s not exactly the road they want to go down because of the simple fact that they were the ones who chose the war in the first place, then coerced, bamboozled, or just plain lied their way into it. Now that they’re stuck with it, trying to get someone else to bail them out — and blaming them when they refuse to bite a second time — seems not only petulant but downright irresponsible. It also harkens back to some of the more hilarious and klutzy anecdotes of the president’s own past; “Hey, buddy, bail me out of my _____ (fill in the blank with “D.U.I.”, “bad oil investments,” “baseball team,” “National Guard duty.”) That is not exactly the kind of campaign you want to run with for national office.