By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 19 -- A brewing argument over Iraq between the presidential campaigns of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama broke into public view here Monday night when Clinton's chief strategist challenged Obama's credentials as a consistent opponent of the war.
Mark Penn and Obama strategist David Axelrod engaged in a pointed and occasionally heated exchange during a public forum at Harvard University over the issue that has become the central point of dispute between the two leading candidates for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
Clinton (N.Y.) voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the Iraq war, while Obama (Ill.), then a state senator, publicly opposed the war. The exchange marked the most substantive clash to date between the Obama and Clinton campaigns and reflected frustration among Clinton advisers over the Illinois senator's use of the issue to distinguish his candidacy.
Penn, responding to a question about Clinton's vote for the resolution, used the opportunity to attack Obama, arguing that he had said in 2004 that he was not sure whether he would have voted against the resolution had he been in the Senate.
"Obama said he didn't know exactly how he would have voted in Congress because he didn't have the full intelligence," Penn said.
Axelrod quickly interrupted Penn and disputed his interpretation of events, charging that the Clinton strategist had distorted the meaning of what Obama had said at the time.
"I really think it is important, if we're going to run the kind of campaign that will unify our party and move this country forward, that we do it in an honest way and that was not an honest" statement, Axelrod said.
Penn also argued that since Obama arrived in the Senate in 2005, his voting record has been virtually identical to Clinton's. "Senator Obama voted $301 billion in funding. So did Senator Clinton," he said. "Senator Obama voted against a definite withdrawal date. So did Senator Clinton."
Penn went on to say that when it comes to their records, there is "very little difference in the Senate, where people actually have to cast votes," and argued that the nomination battle should not be decided on the basis of the two senators' war records.
Axelrod continued to question Penn's recounting of events and his decision to attack Obama. "I did not comment on Senator Clinton's decision in 2002," he said. "You found it necessary to draw Senator Obama into this discussion. Are we going to spend 10 months savaging each other, or are we going to try to lift this country up?"
Penn shot back: "Are we going to look at everybody's record, everybody's votes, tell everyone out there the truth about who supported what, who voted for what, or are we going to selectively tell people?"
The Clinton campaign later supplied several Obama quotations from 2004 to buttress Penn's attack. One came from the New York Times, in which Obama declined to criticize the Democratic Party's presidential and vice presidential nominees, Sen. John F. Kerry and then-Sen. John Edwards, for supporting the 2002 war resolution. "But I'm not privy to Senate intelligence reports," Obama said, according to the Times. "What would I have done? I don't know. What I know is that from my vantage point the case was not made."
The Clinton campaign also distributed an e-mail citing an Obama interview from the week of the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and was asked by moderator Tim Russert: "How could they have been so wrong and you so right as a state legislator in Illinois and they're on the Foreign Relations and intelligence committees in Washington?"
Obama replied, "Well, I think they have access to information that I did not have."
Russert then asked whether Obama would have voted for the resolution authorizing the war. "I would have voted not to authorize the president, given the facts as I saw them at that time." Asked if he therefore disagreed with Kerry and Edwards, he said: "At that time, but, as I said, I wasn't there and what is absolutely clear as we move forward is that if we don't have a change in tone and a change in administration, I think we're going to have trouble making sure that our troops are secure and that we succeed in Iraq."
Axelrod said Monday night that the Clinton campaign has distorted Obama's remarks and has tried to offer a selective view of history. "I don't think that full disclosure is their friend on this," he said.
Clinton's 2002 vote has been consistently questioned, as it was at the forum, when a member of the audience asked Penn how the campaign hoped to convince voters who otherwise might be inclined to support the New York senator that they can trust her judgment.
"Do you think Hillary Clinton is the kind of person who if she were president would have started the Iraq war?" Penn asked. "No." As his exchange with Axelrod continued, he raised the question that many Clinton advisers see as critical: "Is this election going to turn about what happened in 2002 or what's going to happen in the future?"