Clinton's Democratic Rivals Denounce Terrorism Remark

By Anne E. Kornblut and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 25, 2007

WOLFEBORO, N.H., Aug. 24 -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton drew outrage from her opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination on Friday after saying that a terrorist attack in the United States would give Republicans an edge in the 2008 race.

At a small gathering in New Hampshire on Thursday, Clinton raised the possibility of another terrorist strike, saying she would be the best Democrat to confront the Republicans in the wake of such an event. Her comments drew fire from not only her rivals but also the liberal blogosphere, with her detractors accusing her of seeking to use terrorism as a political weapon, just as Republicans have in earlier elections.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), speaking to reporters here late Friday, accused Clinton of "engaging in a political calculation" about terrorism. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) called Clinton's remarks "tasteless."

Speaking at a house party the night before, Clinton said, "It's a horrible prospect to ask yourself, 'What if? What if?' "

"But if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world," she said. "So I think I'm the best of the Democrats to deal with that, as well."

Blake Zeff, a Clinton spokesman, did not back away from her remarks. "Senator Clinton was making clear that she has the strength and experience to keep the country safe," Zeff said on Friday.

Clinton took an immediate hit online. Left-leaning bloggers accused her of conceding a key Republican talking point without a fight and blithely accepting a Karl Rove-like framing of the terrorism debate. A Democratic candidate, bloggers argued, should be able to confidently make the case that another terrorist attack might suggest mistakes in the approach to fighting terrorism embraced by President Bush and the GOP, instead of accepting the assumption that any threat to national security causes voters to flock to Republicans. Since Republicans are claiming an edge because there have not been attacks since Sept. 11, 2001, it seems illogical, bloggers argued, to say that the GOP would gain if there were another attack.

Clinton -- whose campaign advisers initially feared repercussions from the party's liberal base for her vote authorizing the war in Iraq -- has solidified her lead among Democrats at the national level since announcing her candidacy in January. She appears to be running with an eye to the general election in certain respects, taking a tough line on foreign policy and emphasizing her political experience as well as her tenure as a senator from New York at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Yet Clinton appeared to open herself to charges of hypocrisy over how to talk about terrorism in political campaigns. She herself had warned in the past about Republican attempts to use the threat of terrorism as a cudgel against Democrats. At a labor convention in February 2006, she said that the strategy of Rove, White House political adviser, boiled down to this: " 'Here's your game plan, folks. Here's how we're going to win. We're going to win by getting everybody scared again.' Contrary to Franklin Roosevelt, 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself,' this crowd is, 'All we've got is fear, and we're going to keep playing the fear card.' " Several Democratic contenders -- ever-vigilant in responding to Clinton -- leveled the same charge at her Friday after hearing her comments.

Edwards, during a stop on a bus tour across New Hampshire, said he "strongly" disagrees with her comments, which were read aloud to him.

"If we're talking about America being attacked, the last thing we should be engaged in is political calculation," Edwards said. "I believe it is the responsibility of a serious presidential candidate and a president of the United States, when you're talking about something as serious as the potential of America being attacked, to be focused on what's good for America, not politics."

Dodd, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who is far behind in the polls, charged Clinton with being crass. "Frankly, I find it tasteless to discuss political implications when talking about a potential terrorist attack on the United States," he said in a statement.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson criticized her for ceding ground to the Republicans, saying that he, by contrast, is "prepared to stand up to the GOP on national security because I've been there and done it."

"We shouldn't be thinking about terrorism in terms of its domestic political consequences, we should be protecting the country from terrorists," Richardson said in a statement. "Senator Clinton seems to think that President Bush has made this country safer. I disagree with her. Our failed policy in Iraq is making us less safe. Our ports are less safe. Our cities are less safe. Our transportation systems are less safe."

Advisers to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) declined to comment.

MacGillis reported from Washington.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company