Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama, desperate to cut down front-running Sen. Hillary Clinton, did not take advantage of one opening in Thursday night's Las Vegas Democratic presidential debate. Obama pulled his punches on Clinton's September vote for a resolution that he earlier said can be used to go to war against Iran. His reticence may be traced to his co-sponsorship of a similar hawkish amendment back in March.

Obama was softer toward Clinton than last month when he called her "reckless" for voting to name the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, claiming it would give President Bush a pretext to attack Iran. For her part, Clinton did not raise Obama's inconsistency and was uncharacteristically silent about Iran. The two leaders for the Democratic nomination were muzzled by mutually assured destruction, reflecting a Democratic dilemma.

Democrats want to assume a strong anti-terrorist position while deploring U.S. military action against Iran as it develops nuclear weapons. While such an attack before Bush leaves office is reviled on the Left, no Democrat can be seen as soft on an Iranian Islamist regime whose nominal president denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel. The trick is to condemn both Dick Cheney and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This balancing act was upset Oct. 11 when the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader published Obama's op-ed column assailing Clinton's vote for the resolution sponsored by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and Independent Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman. By designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, wrote Obama, "we're still foolishly rattling our sabers" in passing "this reckless amendment," 76 to 22. Obama contended "the Bush Administration could use the language in Lieberman-Kyl to justify an attack on Iran as part of the ongoing war in Iraq." Obama missed the vote.

Obama energized Lanny Davis, Washington lawyer and longtime supporter of the Clintons. In an Oct. 16 letter to The New York Times, Davis noted Obama was one of 68 senators -- including Clinton -- who on March 22 co-sponsored Senate Resolution 970, using language similar to Lieberman-Kyl in branding the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. On his Oct. 24 website, Davis wrote: "It is a complete mystery why Sen. Obama or his campaign managers thought he could get away with criticizing Sen. Clinton on the Kyl-Lieberman resolution and calling it reckless while knowing about his own co-sponsorship of S. 970."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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