Obama's Amnesia Problem

By Peter Beinart
Wednesday, November 28, 2007

It's a cultural cliche: Americans don't care about the past. De Tocqueville noticed it in the 1830s, speculating that in 50 years Americans would know less about the America he visited than the French knew about the Middle Ages. Nearly two centuries later, people are still making the point. Five years ago, Bruce Cole, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, bemoaned a "worsening of our case of American amnesia." His evidence? More than half of high school seniors didn't know whom we fought in World War II; 18 percent thought Germany was our ally.

This is bad news for Barack Obama. As a candidate, the junior senator from Illinois has several advantages over the junior senator from New York. He's more charismatic, he's less polarizing and he's a fresh face at a time when many Americans are sick of the old ones. But in the Democratic primary, surely his biggest advantage is that a little more than five years ago, he denounced the Iraq war and Hillary Clinton voted for it. In other words, on what many Democrats consider the biggest issue of their adult lives, he was right and she was wrong.

Yet he's getting virtually no credit for it. In late September, when The Post and ABC News asked Democrats nationally whom they trusted most on the war, Obama trailed Clinton by 30 points. Even among Democrats who support an immediate withdrawal, he trailed her by more than 25 points, in a recent Pew poll. That's true in the early primary states, as well. In New Hampshire, for instance, according to the Los Angeles Times, likely Democratic primary voters who say they want U.S. troops out of Iraq "as soon as possible" choose Clinton over Obama by more than 2 to 1.

How is this possible? Part of it is that Clinton has moved steadily and skillfully toward where most Democrats are. She now regularly pledges that if President Bush doesn't end the war, she will. Critics say she's fudging -- that asterisks in her plan would keep combat troops in Iraq as far as the eye can see. But most Democratic voters don't seem to care. From what they can tell, there's no difference between Clinton and her opponents. As of today, she's as antiwar as anyone else.

That's why the 2002 vote is so important. If the debate is about Iraq today, Obama looks like he's splitting hairs. But if he can get Democrats to focus on 2002, he has a clean shot. So he keeps bringing it up, saying his original opposition to the war proves he has the judgment to be president and that (by implication) Clinton does not.

And that's where Obama runs smack into America's strange indifference to the past. Recent American history is littered with candidates who were right about war and weren't rewarded at election time. In 1972, when most Americans considered Vietnam a mistake, they still overwhelmingly rejected George McGovern, an early war critic, in favor of Richard Nixon, an early supporter. In 1992, they spurned George H.W. Bush, who had recently presided over a stunning victory in the Persian Gulf War, in favor of Bill Clinton, who famously said he would have backed the war if the congressional vote had been close but that he agreed with the arguments against it. (On Election Day, only 10 percent of American voters told pollsters that they even considered foreign policy a major issue.) And in 2004, Iowa Democrats chose John Kerry, who, like Hillary Clinton, had voted for the war, over Howard Dean, who, like Obama, had denounced it. Dean's opposition initially propelled him to the front of the pack. But in the homestretch, when Kerry co-opted Dean's antiwar and anti-Bush message and voted against $87 billion in war funding, Democrats forgave and forgot.

In the end, Iowa caucus voters who said they strongly disapproved of the war still backed Kerry over Dean by five percentage points.

So what's Obama to do? He has to convince voters that his original antiwar stance still matters, that it's the key to understanding what makes him and Clinton different now. That's why Obama keeps trying to connect Clinton's Iraq vote to her recent vote designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist group, suggesting that once again she is giving Bush the green light to launch a war. Unfortunately for him, history doesn't generally repeat. The Iran resolution was rewritten to avoid any suggestion of military force precisely because Senate Democrats don't want to make the same mistake twice. In a sense, Obama should be flattered. On foreign policy, Clinton is not the same person she was five years ago. Much of what she says about the Middle East these days represents a tacit acknowledgment that she was wrong and he was right. Unfortunately, in our amnesiac country, you don't get elected president by saying, "I told you so."

Peter Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes a monthly column for The Post.

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