By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drew boos and hisses from an audience of liberal activists yesterday as she defended her opposition to a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, and later she received an implicit rebuke from Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) for failing to acknowledge that her support for the war was a mistake.
Clinton's and Kerry's appearances at the Take Back America conference at the Washington Hilton put on vivid display the Democratic Party's divisions over the foreign policy issue that dominates this year's midterm elections, and the two possible 2008 presidential candidates offered a preview of the debate that could dominate the battle for the party's nomination.
Clinton and Kerry supported the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq war. Kerry recently renounced that vote, but Clinton has never done so. She finds herself in opposition to a majority of Democratic activists and is the target of passionate criticism from some of them.
Clinton won repeated applause through most of her speech, which dealt at length with domestic issues but also sharply criticized President Bush's handling of the war. But the audience turned against her when, in what she called a difficult conversation, she restated her long-standing position about timetables for withdrawing U.S forces.
"I have to just say it," she began. "I do not think it is a smart strategy either for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country."
Clinton finished on a more positive note, with an exhortation about winning the November elections that brought audience members to their feet cheering. But within minutes, as she worked the rope line on her way out of the hotel ballroom, she was the target of protesters, who chanted "Bring the troops home" and "Stop the war."
Later, after Clinton's departure, Kerry delivered a fiery denunciation of the war that was continually interrupted with cheers and applause, and he repeated his call for "a hard and fast deadline" for withdrawing troops. At one point, Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, appeared to be directing his comments at the woman who leads early national Democratic polls for 2008.
"Let me say it plainly," Kerry said. "It's not enough to argue with the logistics or to argue about the details or the manner of the conflict's execution or the failures of competence, as great as they are. It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake, to say the simple words that contain more truth than pride. We were misled. We were given evidence that was not true. It was wrong, and I was wrong to vote for that Iraqi resolution."
Kerry struggled throughout the 2004 campaign to square his vote for the resolution and his later opposition to an $87 billion funding bill for the troops. As if to drive home the point that he thinks Clinton and others who share her views are in a similarly untenable position, he told the audience yesterday: "One of the great lessons of life is that you cannot change the future if you're not honest about the past. And we cannot have it both ways in the war in Iraq."
Spokesman David Wade said Kerry's remarks were not directed specifically at Clinton.
Even before Clinton arrived for her speech, it was clear that she faced a potentially hostile audience. Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, the conference's sponsor, admonished the audience to be friendly to the morning speakers. "We owe them our courteous attention," he said. As the audience waited for Clinton to arrive, some passed out anti-Clinton literature to reporters.
The Campaign for America's Future, a leading liberal group, has battled with centrist Democrats over the direction of the party.
Clinton and Kerry spoke just as the news was breaking about Bush's secret trip to Baghdad. Administration officials have seized on the formation of the new government in Iraq and the killing last week of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, to mount an offensive to turn around public perceptions about the war that threaten to damage Republicans in the November elections.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who called the war a "grotesque mistake," challenged the administration's claims of progress during her appearance at the conference.
"As we talk about a new direction for America, I think one place that it is very clear that we need a new direction is in the war in Iraq," she said.
Pelosi joined Kerry in calling for a timetable to pull out the troops, saying she supports a plan outlined earlier by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.).
One Clinton adviser dismissed questions about whether the senator had sought to draw dissents from the crowd as a way to burnish her credentials as a strong-on-national-security centrist. "She had enough respect for her audience not to pander or duck the issue," said strategist Howard Wolfson.