At a time when politicians in both parties have eagerly sought public forums to debate the war in Iraq, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has kept in the shadows.
Clinton has stayed steadfastly on a centrist path, criticizing President Bush but refusing to embrace the early troop withdrawal options that are gaining rapid favor in her party. This careful balance is drawing increasing scorn from liberal activists, frustrated that one of the party's leading lights has shown little appetite to challenge Bush's policy more directly and embrace a plan to set a timetable for bringing U.S. forces home.
Clinton is confronting the Democratic Party's long-standing dilemma on national defense, with those harboring national ambitions caught between the passions of the antiwar left and political concerns that they remain vulnerable to charges of weakness from the Republicans if they embrace the party's base. But some Democrats say, the left not withstanding, her refusal to advocate a speedy exit from Iraq may reflect a more accurate reading of public anxiety about the choices now facing the country.
When Senate Democrats called on President Bush last month to explain the conditions and establish a schedule for withdrawing U.S. forces, Clinton offered backroom advice on the language but let others take the lead on the Senate floor. When Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) called for removing all U.S. troops from Iraq over the next six months, the New York senator told reporters she was opposed. When her advisers were later asked whether she supports a two-year phased withdrawal advocated by a liberal think tank and embraced by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, they demurred.
Faced with rising pressure to join the intensifying debate over an exit strategy and Bush's policies, the politician many think will seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008 chose as her medium a 1,600-word letter outlining her views, recently e-mailed to constituents and supporters.
In the e-mail, Clinton took responsibility for her vote for the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war, while leaving open whether she would have opposed it, given what is now known about faulty intelligence and mismanagement by the administration. She pummeled Bush for his conduct of the war itself but left murky how long she believes U.S. forces should stay in Iraq. As she told Kentucky Democrats earlier this month, "I reject a rigid timetable that the terrorists can exploit, and I reject an open timetable that has no ending attached to it."
Clinton's support for the war continues the pro-defense posture she has maintained in the Senate. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, she has courted Pentagon commanders and military families, and as a senator from New York on Sept. 11, 2001, her advocacy for the campaign against terrorists has been unwavering. But her decision to let others lead the debate over Iraq reflects what allies say is her innate caution.
Antiwar activists have been displeased. "Senator Clinton is demonstrating cowardice in the face of the right-wing noise machine," said Tom Mattzie, Washington director of the liberal group MoveOn.org.
But Clinton's refusal to embrace a quick exit strategy drew strong editorial support from the Buffalo News, which on Thursday praised her as a politician of conviction and conscience.
Some analysts call her approach a classic example of the kind of third-way triangulation -- putting herself at odds not only with the Republicans but also with much of her own party -- practiced by her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Others say she has been on target in her approach. "I think she's been very measured and very thoughtful and very consistent with her criticisms," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
Clinton's support for the war has prompted a challenge from Jonathan Tasini, an antiwar Democrat, in next year's Senate primary in New York. She remains overwhelmingly popular among Democrats in New York, so the challenge may be more an irritant that a real threat. But it could be a harbinger of a more significant challenge from the left to Clinton in 2008, if she decides to seek her party's presidential nomination.
Her advisers say she has adopted positions out of conviction and accepts the consequences of her actions. "She is doing what she believes," said Howard Wolfson, a communications adviser to Clinton. "The politics will either flow from that or they won't."
In Clinton's political circle, the bet is that her approach is good politics for a general election campaign, that support for the war in Iraq and the campaign against terrorism will inoculate her against Republican criticisms that the Democratic Party has been soft on defense. Neither the New York senator nor her husband has backed away from advocacy of seeing the Iraq mission through to a successful conclusion.
But the effort to put one foot squarely with those attacking Bush and another with those who say the United States cannot leave Iraq too soon has drawn criticism that she has adopted her position for reasons of political expediency, even among some Democrats who recognize the complexity of the choices facing them. "Hillary has made herself look political on this rather than principled," said Robert L. Borosage of the liberal Campaign for America's Future.
Clinton has traveled twice to Iraq and come back both times critical of the president and steadfast in her advocacy for success in defeating the insurgency there. She gave a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in December 2003 on Iraq and terrorism counseling patience in the military struggle there. In February, she appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) from Baghdad. But as the debate has shifted to the question of withdrawing U.S. forces, she has let others take the lead.
Her e-mail was sent out the day before Bush spoke at the Naval Academy in Annapolis -- a decision that resulted in minimal media coverage and guaranteed fewer intrusive questions from reporters about how or whether her views have changed since her initial vote for the war.
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines called the use of the e-mail a routine way Clinton communicates with her constituents. "In advance of the president's Iraq address, she wanted to reiterate her repeated criticism of how the president has used his authority and prosecuted this war," he said in an e-mail message.
Democratic strategists said Clinton can weather a rift with the left over Iraq because of her long-standing relationships with so many liberal constituencies. They also said the use of the e-mail allowed her to respond to criticism from liberals in the party without giving conservative critics television footage to exploit.
"It had the least amount of impact, but it checked the box," said one Democratic strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment freely about Clinton's strategy. "She's still going to be able to present herself as strong on national security. In no way can she be accused of cutting and running. But she's very deftly taken care of mounting criticism from the left."
The e-mail left some questions unanswered, however. On the question of the resolution in 2002 giving Bush authority to go to war, she said in her e-mail: "Based on the information that we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the president authority to use force against Iraq."
That is a position she has taken for more than a year, but she went a step further in her letter, suggesting she and others would vote differently today: "And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed, given the lack of a long-term plan, paltry international support, the proven absence of weapons of mass destruction and the reallocation of troops and resources that might have been used in Afghanistan to eliminate [Osama] bin Laden and al Qaeda, and fully uproot the Taliban," she wrote.
Two Clinton advisers, who would not speak for the record about her views, rejected questions about whether she would now oppose the resolution as hypothetical, arguing that any such interpretation was reading more into the statement than was intended. "She has long said . . . 'I don't regret my vote -- I regret the way the president used the authority granted to him,' " one aide said.
Given the opposition to Murtha's plan within the party, Clinton may not differ with many Democratic politicians who are pressing for a policy that marks 2006 as a transition year in Iraq but that hedges on how long to keep troops there. But she and her aides have been reluctant to offer any clues as to how long is too long, suggesting only that her patience is less than the president's.
Clinton has taken no explicit position on the plan put forward by the liberal Center for American Progress that Dean endorsed last weekend calling for withdrawing about half of U.S. forces in 2006 and the rest by the end of 2007. Aides said her e-mail speaks for itself.
Asked how she differs with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who has been Bush's strongest supporter among the Democrats, Wolfson said, "That's a briar patch I choose not to throw myself into."