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A New Hampshire Ghost

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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A specter was haunting Hillary Clinton as she campaigned in New Hampshire this weekend: the specter of Ed Muskie.

As the ancient or merely studious among us will recall, the Democratic senator from Maine, who'd been Hubert Humphrey's running mate in 1968, entered his party's presidential contest in 1972 as the front-runner. His prospects were dashed in the New Hampshire snows, however. As popular memory has it, an indignant Muskie started crying while refuting a silly attack on him (though whether he was genuinely upset or merely sniffling during a frigid outdoor news conference was never authoritatively resolved). Muskie's more serious problem, however, was the Vietnam War, which he opposed.

His opposition, though, had none of the fervor or long-term consistency of another Democratic senator and presidential aspirant, George McGovern. By 1972, seven years had elapsed since the United States had sent ground forces to Vietnam, and Richard Nixon, through his invasion of Cambodia and stepped-up bombing campaigns, had made clear that the road to de-escalation would entail periodic escalations, at least as long as he was president. The Democratic base was in no mood for temporizing on Vietnam.

Party voters wanted out, and they wanted a nominee who'd been right on the war (almost) from the start: McGovern. Sic transit gloria Muskie.

Today, Hillary Clinton seems almost uncannily positioned to become the Ed Muskie of 2008. She opposes the U.S. military presence in Iraq but not with the specificity, fervor or bona fides of her leading Democratic rivals. As Muskie did with Vietnam, she supported the legislation enabling the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and she has been slower and more inconstant than her party rivals in coming around to opposing the continued U.S. occupation.

Entering the race, Clinton has institutional advantages that Muskie could scarcely have dreamed of -- an unparalleled network of financial and political supporters, a universal level of public recognition. But, like Muskie, she is out of sync with her party's -- to some extent, her country's -- voters on the major issue of the day. In a Gallup Poll released Monday, the public favored, by 63 percent to 35 percent, Congress setting a timetable for withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of next year. The public's position is thus aligned more closely with those of Barack Obama and John Edwards than with that of Clinton, who has yet to commit to a timetable for withdrawal.

Indeed, so strong is support for a withdrawal that Edwards and Obama would by no means face the general election wipeout that was McGovern's fate. (Besides, Nixon ran against the antiwar movement and the fomenters of social tumult. Today, while opposition to the war is widespread, there isn't really an antiwar movement -- not one resembling what emerged in the '60s, anyway -- for hawks or Republicans to run against.) And should Americans still be fighting and dying in Iraq when the next election rolls around, the Democrats probably could win with Dennis Kucinich as their nominee.

I can understand some of the political calculations behind Clinton's reticence on the war -- chiefly, that a female candidate must seem as ready to use force as her male counterparts. That leaves the whole Democratic presidential pack, however, freer to lash out at the bloody absurdity of President Bush's war than she. And it leaves Clinton locked into a reckless cautiousness at a time when the electorate is looking for a decisive change.

What Clinton and her strategists would do well to remember is that it was Nixon -- by his escalations of the war even as he was withdrawing U.S. ground forces -- who was chiefly responsible for driving Democrats toward the candidate who most clearly repudiated the war. And that Nixon was a model of dovish flexibility in Vietnam compared to Bush's unyielding determination to keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq long past the point where anyone can articulate their mission. Bush will drive the nation toward the Democrats, and the Democrats toward their most credible champions of ending the U.S. occupation. Hillary Clinton is not high on that list, and that, as Ed Muskie could attest, is the chief obstacle to her winning her party's presidential nod.

ยท

In August 2005, I wrote a column about a recent National Labor Relations Board (Republican majority thereof) ruling that upheld the legality of a company's banning its employees from fraternizing off the job, citing as a woozy precedent a previous ruling that had banned hotel employees from fraternizing with guests. Earlier this month, the D.C Court of Appeals overturned that 2005 ruling -- reaffirming, broadly speaking, that the employer-employee relationship isn't that of a lord to a serf, and, more narrowly, that happy hour with your co-workers is your true-blue American right.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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