Depends What the Meaning of 'Mistake' Is

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, February 23, 2007

Hillary Clinton's rivals would love to paint her as inflexible, programmed, focus-grouped within an inch of her life and intent on bringing nothing less than a full-fledged Clinton Restoration to the White House. So why is she sitting for the portrait?

We'll get to her campaign's delicious quarrel with Hollywood mogul David Geffen in a moment. Less entertaining, but ultimately more important, is the rhetorical line that Clinton drew in the Iraqi quicksand Wednesday at the Democratic candidates' forum in Nevada: no apology for her vote to authorize the war, no admission that she made a mistake. In other words, Clinton opposes the war but defends her vote to enable it.

That's the kind of carefully calibrated position that I suppose might help her in the general election, when she would have to win support from independents. It would let her avoid the "I voted for it before I voted against it" trap that snared John Kerry in 2004. But buckling herself into a no-regrets straitjacket so early can only hurt Clinton among Democratic primary voters, who overwhelmingly oppose the war -- and who, by all evidence, expect abject contrition from candidates who voted to authorize it.

Barack Obama gets a pass -- he wasn't anywhere near Congress at the time, and he publicly opposed the war to boot. John Edwards and Christopher Dodd, both of whom were in the Senate in 2002, have proclaimed that their votes to authorize the invasion were wrong and are begging forgiveness.

Asked about Clinton's position, Edwards said: "Whether it's good enough, I think, is between her and her conscience. It's not for me to judge."

Which, of course, was a judgment.

Clinton may believe that being the front-runner for the nomination means never having to say you're sorry. She may believe that positioning herself at the hawkish end of the Democratic spectrum helps her project an image of toughness, dispelling any reservations voters may have about a woman as commander in chief. Whatever the reason, refusing to say the words "mistake" or "apology" seems transparently artificial. It's a simple matter of cause and effect: If you deplore the effect, how can you not regret participating in the cause?

It sounds like something a candidate has decided to say rather than something a candidate believes -- an all-too-cute parsing of the language that brings to mind some of the less glorious episodes of the Clinton years. It sounds like a position manufactured by committee, an output from a machine. It certainly doesn't sound like an organic part of the "conversation" that Clinton says she wants to have with America.

It's awfully early for a candidate to lock herself into such a problematic script. As long as the war remains the campaign's dominant issue, Clinton is likely to be pressed on Iraq at virtually every stop. Refusing to apologize, or even to admit making a mistake, just keeps alive an issue for Clinton that her opponents already have dealt with and left behind.

Now, on to the Geffen imbroglio. Once one of the Clintons' biggest Hollywood supporters, the billionaire co-hosted a fundraiser for Obama this week that brought in $1.3 million. That was bad enough, from the Clintons' point of view -- they're not used to having to share the Hollywood money machine with anybody else. But Geffen went much further, telling New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that Hillary Clinton was "incredibly polarizing" -- and that while everyone in politics lies, the Clintons "do it with such ease, it's troubling."

The Clinton campaign went thermonuclear, and it's easy to understand why. Here was a former insider, a one-time guest in the Lincoln Bedroom, seeming to confirm the suspicions of the most dedicated Clinton-haters. The campaign immediately responded by demanding that Obama disassociate himself from Geffen's remarks and "return his money" -- presumably meaning his personal $2,300 campaign contribution. Clinton herself refrained from attacking Obama but deplored the "politics of personal destruction" -- a classic Clinton-era phrase.

Obama responded that he didn't see why he should get involved in what looked like a dispute between Geffen and the Clintons. Obama's campaign issued a sharper statement, perhaps worried about looking soft or passive, then wisely let the matter drop.

The impression that was left at the end of the week was of a touchy, grouchy Clinton Inc. and a candidate constrained by her campaign strategy. It was as if Hillary Clinton were sketching a caricature of herself. That's wasted effort. Others would be happy to do the job for her.

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