It’s no exaggeration to say that Hillary Clinton’s Iraq war vote probably cost her the 2008 Democratic nomination. Barack Obama became a liberal favorite precisely because he’d delivered an early anti-war speech that contrasted so vividly with Clinton’s vote to give President George W. Bush the authorization to go to war. So I think it’s highly notable that an early leak from Clinton’s forthcoming memoir reveals that she has finally stopped trying to defend that vote. According to CBS News, which obtained a copy of her book, she says: “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple.”
A lot of people—especially younger ones—may have forgotten how ominously that vote loomed over her presidential candidacy, even before she had declared. Subsequent Obama hagiography has, I think, tended to obscure how much that weakened her and provided the opening for him to have a shot at the nomination. But it was a big, big deal. And it was fascinating, and even a little uncomfortable, to listen to her try and talk her way out of responsibility for it without flip-flopping and disavowing it altogether—something she and her advisers calculated she couldn’t recover from.
As it happens, I did a long interview with then-Senator Hillary Clinton in 2006, on the day after a liberal gadfly, Ned Lamont, had defeated Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary largely because of Lieberman’s vote for war—the same vote Clinton had cast. Her torturous answer to my simple question about why she thought she would avoid the same fate gives a good flavor of how she spoke about her vote at the time. After first claiming, disingenuously, that she hadn’t intended her vote as authorization for Bush to invade Iraq, she responded to the Lieberman comparison with an answer so long, calculating, and revealing that I quoted the whole thing:
I think our positions are very different. We may have cast the same vote, [but] I was not standing in the Rose Garden with George Bush announcing the desire to go into Iraq. I have been a consistent critic of the way they conducted the war, and I was pleasantly surprised to see Tom Ricks referring to my questioning of Paul Wolfowitz in his book [Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq]. You know, I’m reading his book, feeling depressed, and I get to page 385, I think it is, and it says, “Finally the Democrats began to go after people,” and he has a page about my questioning of Wolfowitz. So I have consistently gone after the administration, and I worked with my Democratic colleagues, first in November, then in June, to craft a Democratic response. I thought both times we did a good job, and Lieberman didn’t vote for it either time. So we have very different positions. It is indisputable that we both voted to give Bush authority. But what we thought we were voting for, and what Bush eventually did, and then how we have responded since, I think, is really distinctive between us.
It was clear that this was going to be a huge problem for her. She should have just said that she’d gotten it wrong. She didn’t say it, and she lost. But now, apparently, she has changed tack, which is probably a smart thing to do.