Clinton's Search for Common Ground Gets Mixed Reviews in N.H.

Sen. Hillary Clinton made her first trip as presidential candidate to New Hampshire, where she spoke of making compromises rather than promises.
Sen. Hillary Clinton made her first trip as presidential candidate to New Hampshire, where she spoke of making compromises rather than promises. (By Jim Cole -- Associated Press)
By Chris Cillizza Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

KEENE, N.H., Feb. 11 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) touted the politics of the possible Sunday during her inaugural visit to New Hampshire as a presidential candidate, a message that found an energetic but not ecstatic reception in town-hall meetings and house parties across the state.

Clinton veered away from drawing simple conclusions on issues such as the war in Iraq and health care, insisting that each is a complex problem that does not lend itself to a simple solution.

On Iraq, an area where Clinton has drawn considerable criticism for her unwillingness to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, she defended the Senate's effort to pass a nonbinding resolution condemning President Bush's plan to send 21,500 more combat troops to Iraq, calling it a first step in changing U.S. policy on the war. She also said she opposes any proposal to defund U.S. troops now or in the future.

"I know that is hard medicine for people," Clinton said at a town-hall meeting Sunday night in Keene, a western New Hampshire town.

Earlier in the day in Manchester, Clinton described Iraq as a "gnawing, painful sore" and added that she understands "the anguish and the outrage of people" about the conflict. Even so, she repeatedly rejected the opportunity to call her 2002 vote a mistake.

"What I say is what I believe," Clinton said. "The problem with this president is he should not have been trusted with this authority." She added that she would love to "wave a magic wand" and change the circumstances in Iraq but that is simply not possible. She did use the phrase "civil war" to describe the conflict in Iraq -- a description she has used before but not since becoming a candidate for president.

Clinton's unwillingness to offer a rhetorical olive branch to the antiwar left contrasts sharply with the positions taken by her two main rivals for the Democratic nomination -- Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.). Obama, who formally entered the race Saturday, has called for all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by March 2008 and on Sunday called on Clinton to better explain her plan to extricate troops from Iraq. Edwards has advocated an immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Clinton is sending a message to primary voters as well as to her opponents that governing -- unlike campaigning -- is about finding common ground and forging compromise, not making difficult promises. It's a message she believes is striking fear in Republicans. "I'm the one person they are most afraid of," she said during a stop in Nashua. "Bill and I have beaten them before, and we will again."

Her approach is evident on health care, which Clinton unsuccessfully tried to revamp in the early 1990s while she was first lady. She pointedly refused to offer a comprehensive proposal over the weekend, instead theorizing on how the current system is failing and criticizing those who she said believe that throwing more money at the problem will solve it.

This month, Edwards unveiled a health-care proposal that would cost $90 billion to $120 billion annually and be funded mainly by raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

"I am looking for answers that will not have us spend more money," Clinton said. "I am convinced we can do that."

The response to Clinton's approach was mixed. A woman who attended a house party in Manchester on Sunday told the senator that the explanation that her 2002 vote was not an authorization for war "doesn't fly." But she seemed satisfied when Clinton said -- as she did multiple times during her two-day trip -- that if she knew then what she knows now, she never would have voted for the war.

Others were less easily pleased. One man hoisting a sign that read "No More Pro War Candidates" said that even if Clinton apologized for her vote, he could not support her. "We want people with better judgment than that," he said.

Through it all, Clinton stuck to the script, summing up her political philosophy in Nashua: "You have to find common ground, but you also have to stand your ground."

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