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Miss Disingenuity

Has Hillary Clinton fallen victim to the classic Washington disease — of being for something before you turn against it?

February 16, 2007

Has Hillary Clinton fallen victim to the classic Washington disease — of being for something before you turn against it?

Choosing a career as a politician, especially in the U.S. Congress, means a life of calculated bets. In a way, you need to be good at predicting the future — since past votes can come back to haunt you.

If you prove to be on the wrong side of an issue, your opponents will do everything they can to cast a glaring spotlight on your past failing.

While erring is undoubtedly part of human nature, the key question is how we handle past mistakes: Do we acknowledge them and move on? Or do we get entangled in all sorts of confusing mental gyrations, because we are essentially incapable of admitting a mistake?

Sadly enough, the Senator from New York is in the second category. When she cast her vote on October 11, 2002 to authorize war operations in Iraq, Hillary Clinton already had a keen eye on securing her road to the Presidency of the United States.

Her past six years in the Senate, in large part, have been devoted to establishing her credentials as a policymaker with a respectable record on national security issues — undoubtedly an important prerequisite to be considered by her fellow Americans as eligible to be their President.

Viewed in that light, Senator Clinton thought she had a perfectly covered bet: Vote with the President — and show her toughness and patriotism and support of the military.

The only trouble is: It was a disastrous vote. Any of the 77 Senators who voted to support this action — and especially the 29 Democratic Senators who did so — shares culpability for helping to pave the way for the worst foreign policy debacle in U.S. history.

Of course, Senator Clinton has a ready answer for that.

When challenged to defend her vote at a campaign appearance on February 10 in the important primary state of New Hampshire, she responded by pinning the blame almost exclusively on President Bush for misleading the U.S. Congress and carrying out the war incompetently.

Senator Clinton’s consistent refusals to disavow her ill-advised October 2002 vote for the road to war stand in stark contrast to the mea culpa of fellow presidential candidate and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

He has had the guts to admit unequivocally that his vote was a bad mistake — and he has subsequently been allowed to move on. To err, after all, is human — but so is the willingness to admit a mistake, especially such a grievous one.

If Mrs. Clinton now implicitly argues that she did the patriotic thing and, once again, stood by her man, the President of the United States, then perhaps all she really needed to do was to look at one of the biggest patriots serving in her own party in the Senate, Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

He has long been such a patriot that, in international trade circles and elsewhere, he was considered proof positive of a nationalist in the legislature. His zeal to blame other nations for their presumed vices and to rally around the American flag used to be legendary.

With one important distinction: When the talk came to war with Iraq, the great patriot chose the hard thing — stand up against a President who wrapped himself in the American flag to cover up the evident lack of factual evidence required to support his proposed course of action.

If Senator Byrd — at a proud 84 years of age — saw the goods on Mr. Bush all too clearly, one just has to assume that the much more brilliant intellect of Mrs. Clinton should have done so as well.

Instead, she chose to follow Senator Kerry's path. His ill-fated campaign for U.S. President in 2004 became infamous for his remark that "he was for it [the war with Iraq], before he was against it." That is the essence of disingenuity — and arrogance.

Now, unlike the Senator from Massachusetts, Mrs. Clinton does not suffer from foot in the mouth disease. But sadly, what she shares with him is the all-too-Washingtonian proclivity to be on both sides of an issue.

Mrs. Clinton's ex post facto effort of equivocation is all the more disingenuous considering that — as even her detractors readily admit — she is one of the most intelligent people engaged in U.S. politics. She has a brilliant mind — and, one would surmise, a brilliant memory, since those two tend to go hand in hand.

Consequently, it is hard to imagine that when she cast her lot with President Bush, she conveniently forgot the much-maligned work of the United Nations weapons inspectors.

Swedish diplomat Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, argued forcefully in the lead-up to the war that the weapons of mass destruction cited by President Bush and his supplicants — principally, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell — simply did not exist.

With her lawyerly mind, one has to assume that Mrs. Clinton was fully aware that one needed the evidence — at least some credible evidence — in order to vote for possible war.

But she chose to ignore the warnings of Mr. Blix and other highly regarded officials that Iraq possessed no weapons of mass destruction.

Why? Because the Bush/Cheney team successfully created an atmosphere in the United States where asking for more evidence before proceeding with military action was considered positively French — and distinctly anti-American.

She wanted to be safe — and not let her perceived weakness as a woman (or as a Clinton) stand in her way on the road to the White House. In order to overcome that hurdle, she had to do the tactically expedient thing by voting with President Bush.

It must be that kind of ill-advised character gymnastics that Barack Obama refers to when he argues that he may not have been in Washington for long — but that he has seen enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.

A few weeks ago, occasional Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus came up with a powerful image that pointed out a possibly fatal flaw in Mrs. Clinton's candidacy.

For all the access to money from Hollywood and New York corporate coffers that Hillary Clinton has wrapped up, Marcus argued that, come to think of it, the real (Bill) Clinton in the 2008 campaign is not Hillary, but Obama — for his ability to transcend divisions and make people with opposing viewpoints believe that he agrees with them.

And then she went on to say that Hillary rather was the Al Gore of 2000, a policy wonk who really cared about vital issues — but proved incapable of ever displaying those pivotal powers of personal transcendence.

However, what is truly tragic about Hillary Clinton's candidacy is that she does not just resemble Al Gore in his wonkishness. What is worse is that, very much like the sitting President of the United States, she finds it next to impossible to admit that she might have made a mistake.

Being incapable of admitting serious mistakes is a character flaw that can bring tragic consequences onto the United States, as George W. Bush's intransigence on the Iraq issue proves so vividly.

What further unites both Mr. Bush and Mrs. Clinton is the intense loathing they engender among their political opponents. President Bush's polarizing effect stems from his uncompromising approach to governing.

In contrast, Mrs. Clinton's divisiveness is, in large part, due to the sheer force of her personality — as well as the resentment held in some quarters of U.S. society toward strong women.

In short, for all her polish and brilliance, Mrs. Clinton combines Al Gore's wonkishness and Mr. Bush's divisiveness. The question about the 2008 race is whether all the money in the world will help her overcome these serious liabilities.

To Hillary Clinton's credit, she has focused early on some of the vital issues — none more important than health care. But at this stage, all of the Democratic candidates — and even some Republican contenders — agree with that emphasis.

However, the Senator from New York already had her shot at that issue back in 1993, when she failed miserably by having the right insights — but then coming up with an approach that her critics rightfully called a national health care plan of Stalinist proportions and Byzantine complexity.

Scarred by the overwhelming failure of Hillary Care (as her health care plan was dubbed by critics), Mrs. Clinton is now trying to provide universal health care on the cheap.

In contrast to John Edwards — who has forthrightly called for higher taxes on wealthy Americans to pay for his $100 billion proposal — Senator Clinton has made it clear her plan will not "throw more money" at the problem.

In making such an unlikely pledge, she resembles the first President Bush — whose "no new taxes" promise during the 1988 campaign created tensions between himself and fellow Republicans when he actually raised taxes two years later.

There are few second acts in American politics. It is a nation inclined to give somebody only one shot at doing things. That does not augur well for Mrs. Clinton, whose presidency, in several ways, would seem more like a continuation of the current Bush one than the previous Clinton one.