WASHINGTON -- Arthur Balfour, the British statesman, once said that a rival's clarity was a liability because he had nothing to say. As the presidential nomination contests approach a crescendo, some candidates are making themselves perilously clear, one of them with the help of her helpmate.
Last Tuesday, Bill Clinton, trying to whet Iowans' appetites for another Clinton presidency, announced/discovered/remembered that he opposed the Iraq War "from the beginning," thereby revealing disharmony with his spouse, who voted for it. Backward reels the mind, to 1992, when Gov. Clinton explained his opinion of Congress' 1991 authorization of the Gulf War: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made."
Such muddiness clarifies: Do voters who are weary of the scary clarity of the current president's certitudes really want to replace them with a recurrence of the hairsplitting evasions that created the adjective "Clintonian"?
About one thing, Hillary Clinton is, remarkably, both clear and opaque: Jefferson is anachronistic. "We can talk all we want about freedom and opportunity, about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but what does all that mean to a mother or father who can't take a sick child to the doctor?" Well, OK, what does "all that" mean to someone stuck in congested traffic? Or annoyed by the price of cable television? What does Mrs. Clinton mean?
John Edwards' health care agenda involves un-Jeffersonian bossiness. "It requires," he says, "that everybody get preventive care. If you are going to be in the system, you can't choose not to go to the doctor for 20 years." In an ad running in Iowa, Edwards brandishes his mailed fist at Congress, to which he vows to say: "If you don't pass universal health care by July of 2009, in six months, I'm going to use my power as president to take your health care away from you."
What power would that be? What power enables presidents to "take" health care from people who have it by statute? This is the Democrats' riposte to the grandiosity of the current president's notion of executive prerogatives?
Edwards might, however, reconsider -- he is, after all, a serial apologizer. Of his actions during his six years in the Senate, he says: My vote for the Iraq War? Sorry about that. For the Patriot Act? I don't know what I was thinking. For No Child Left Behind? Oops! For liberalized trade with China? Forgive me. For storing waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain? I was for it before I was against it.