By Anne E. Kornblut and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
In criticizing Sen. Barack Obama over his early views on Iraq, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign appears to be trying to blur the differences between the two on the war and seeking to direct attention away from criticism of her vote to authorize it.
During a public forum on Monday night, Mark J. Penn, the chief strategist for Clinton (D-N.Y.), challenged Obama's antiwar credentials by paraphrasing comments Obama made in 2004 about his uncertainty over the war; former president Bill Clinton reportedly made similar remarks about Obama (D-Ill.) at a fundraiser in Manhattan last week. When asked to support the claims, Clinton officials provided pages of Obama quotations -- some of them abridged -- from 2002 and 2004.
Clinton voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing the war, while Obama, though he was not yet in the Senate, said at the time that he opposed the war. Obama uses the difference to make the point that he has the judgment to be president, even if he has served only two years in Washington.
His argument cuts to the core of what the Clinton campaign is selling to voters, which is the idea that she is uniquely qualified, by dint of a lifetime in public service, to serve as president. The experience argument, they believe, can ease qualms about Clinton, particularly among left-leaning Democrats who might otherwise support her but have deep reservations about her vote for the war.
Yet in drawing attention to Obama's early views on the war, the Clinton campaign risked appearing overly defensive on a subject that has long bedeviled the New York senator.
"There is a risk of looking heavy-handed, especially, frankly, in attacking Obama, and it's the second time they've done it," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who worked for Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign in 2004 and is not affiliated with any campaign this year. The first time, Mellman said, was last month, when the Clinton campaign denounced Obama for refusing to distance himself from critical remarks about Clinton made by Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
On Tuesday, Obama released a video declaring his opposition to the war in no uncertain terms, with snippets from statements he made in 2002 and 2004, including this quote: "I don't oppose war in all circumstances. But what I do oppose is a dumb war." Obama has begun circulating pamphlets at his campaign events with the full text of the speech he gave in 2002 declaring his opposition to the war even at a time when it was relatively popular.
With public disapproval of the war at an all-time high, Clinton advisers have been anxious to put the issue of Obama's record on Iraq into public view, hoping to shift the focus away from her 2002 vote and her refusal since then to apologize for it.
Clinton advisers would rather discuss who is best equipped -- by experience, temperament and judgment -- to end the war if it is still going when the next president is inaugurated in January 2009. As Penn put it on Monday, "Is this election going to turn about what happened in 2002 or about the future?"
Still, Penn did not hesitate to look backward at what he said was Obama's mixed message about the war at the time. "Obama said he didn't know exactly how he would have voted in Congress because he didn't have the full intelligence," Penn said.
In fact, Obama did say in a CNN interview in 2004: "I didn't have the information that was available to senators. I know that, as somebody who was thinking about a U.S. Senate race, I think it was a mistake, and I would have voted no." He went on to describe the vote as a "tough call."
From the start, Clinton's campaign has displayed two attributes: pugnaciousness and defensiveness. Clinton advisers believe that only by being aggressive can their candidate counter negative perceptions of their candidate and give her the opportunity to make her own case for leading the country.
When Clinton first traveled to Iowa as a candidate, she told state party officials that Democrats should be ready to "deck" any opponents who attack them and she stressed to members of the Democratic National Committee that she and her husband know how to fight and beat Republicans better than anyone else in the party.
When Geffen, an Obama supporter, offered a nasty critique of the candidate and her husband to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson issued a statement demanding that Obama renounce Geffen's support and return his money.
The Obama campaign responded in kind, and in the after-action analysis, neither campaign ended up pleased with the way events played out that day. Obama advisers regret rising to the bait while Clinton allies believe her campaign team sounded too shrill in defending the candidate and her husband. But that has not satiated the apparent appetite for combat between the two campaigns.
Clinton advisers offer no apologies for their aggressive posture. They argue that the only way for a Democrat to win in 2008 is to be prepared for Republican attacks and fight off those attacks as vehemently as necessary.
"We understand what it takes to get your message out," Penn said. "The opponents try to kill your message. You have to respond to what they say. You have to defeat it." Clinton, he added, is not going to be caught off guard by an attack that makes it difficult to get her own message through to the voters. "And I think that experience is absolutely critical to winning this White House," he said.
Obama chief strategist David Axelrod countered that the attack-and-counterattack politics Penn describes ultimately will reinforce the climate Obama hopes to change with his campaign. "If what we allow this election to become is one more war of attrition, one more battle of tactics, one more contest of who can use the most refined weapons of politics, we're going to do the same thing we've done in recent years," he said. "We're going to kill people's sense of idealism and hope."
Axelrod argued that what the country needs is a leader "who can get us to lower our voices and raise our sight." But Penn countered that the only way to do that is to drown out an opponent's attacks. To "get that message out, you have to defeat the Republican machine," he said.
Wolfson said that from the Clinton campaign's perspective, the incident was more about positions Democrats shared rather than their divisions.
"Mark was making clear that Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have had the same voting record in Congress on Iraq and that Democrats are united in seeking to bring an end to the war," he said. "As Democrats, our shared beliefs are much greater than our differences."