The Washington Times

We all know that Hillary Clinton has found herself twisted into a knot over her position on Iraq. Indeed, there’s a pretty good case that her vote in favor of the authorization of the war is the biggest substantive obstacle between her and the Democratic nomination.

Yes, the person of Barack Obama looms large, and Mr. Obama was going to be a major political force the moment he decided to enter presidential politics. But that leaves unanswered the question of why Mr. Obama chose to get in the game now. Time is on his side. He didn’t need to pick a fight with Mrs. Clinton for the 2008 nomination. That he chose to do so seems inextricably bound to the tenuous position Mrs. Clinton finds herself in because of the war, which Mr. Obama was making a cogent case against back in Illinois in 2002.

Also, true, the ghost of Clinton past is an obstacle. Democrats closed ranks around Bill Clinton during the Kenneth Starr investigation and impeachment proceedings. They never really got a chance to make a net assessment of the Clinton years outside the context of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” attacks. The primary process this year presents such an opportunity.

But it does so chiefly because the Democratic Party has decided against a consensus approach to Mrs. Clinton’s nomination. Instead, there will be a robust contest, and it is indeed likely to lead to more eruptions like David Geffen’s two weeks ago. With Mrs. Clinton a clear front-runner and well prepared in terms of money and organization, the reason for the emergence of a serious effort to disrupt her coronation is clearly, once again, discontent over Iraq. Put it this way: If the party were united behind her as its spokesman on Iraq policy, the door would be largely closed to subsidiary trouble of this sort. It would fall to Republicans to dredge up her past, which would have the effect, one again, of unifying the Democratic Party behind a Clinton.

But the precise nature of Mrs. Clinton’s Iraq problem is highly illuminating. And it may reveal more about her as a person and as a candidate than we have generally appreciated.

It’s not just that Mrs. Clinton voted in favor of authorizing war against the Saddam regime. It’s that she has refused to repudiate her vote in favor of the war, to apologize for it, to call it a mistake.

True, she is now an outspoken critic of the conduct of the war, but who isn’t? And as Matthew Continetti noted recently in a valuable review of her Iraq position in the Weekly Standard, she has said that “Based on the information we have today” about Saddam Hussein’s weapons programs, Congress never would have been asked to give the president authority to use force against Iraq. And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed.” That, too, is uncontroversial, though its focus on the office of the presidency is revealing. She has obviously taken the trouble to think through how she would have handled the matter as president. If you or I do that, it’s fantasizing; when Mrs. Clinton does it, it’s job training.

She has said it was a mistake to believe President Bush’s claims about weapons programs, which is orthodoxy among Democrats, but she is also on record about the consistency of the intelligence information from the George H.W. Bush administration through her husband’s two terms to the George W. Bush administration. By the standards of her party, that’s very generous to the second President Bush.

Overall, though, what she won’t do is try to get right with the party base by acknowledging a mistake. Why not? Cynical explanations abound. She doesn’t want to hand an opponent a flip-flop, “for the war before she was against it” opportunity. Her carefully calibrated appeal to the middle will not allow her to repudiate the vote. People would view the repudiation of her vote as a cynical political calculation, which would in turn firm up impressions of her as a cynical political calculator. Therefore, on cynical political grounds, she must not seem cynical. Cynically repudiating the vote would raise the question of whether the vote was, in the first place, a cynical political calculation.    

I don’t think, however, that a lens of cynicism brings sufficient clarity to the matter. That’s because cynical reasons for not repudiating the vote seem to me to be far outweighed by the cynical case for doing so. And that, I’m afraid, leaves us with only one plausible explanation: Mrs. Clinton thinks her vote was right.

In other words, faced with the same information and the same decision now, she would decide the same way: in favor of authorizing the use of force, or if president, of asking for authorization.

If so, Mrs. Clinton’s political problem is principle and conviction, not the opposite. The impression that she is behaving merely cynically may turn out to be her refuge from the worse problem of believing in principles out of sync with what Democrats are looking for in 2008.