As the 2008 Democratic presidential sweepstakes unfolds, it will be interesting to watch the ongoing conflict between the two main rivals: Hillary Clinton and the antiwar base.
Everyone knows that Hillary has shrewdly positioned herself as a hawk in anticipation of a presidential run. Far fewer have bought into her sincerity on the matter. Conservatives know she has been acting. Antiwar liberals have fervently hoped so.
From the beginning, Hillary has received angry criticism from the left for her pro-war rhetoric and her vote in support of the Iraq war resolution. But she was able to deflect most of it earlier because the war wasn't so unpopular then and because even while supporting the war she always found a way to harshly criticize President Bush's war policy.
But now that the Democratic contest is underway, the war is much more unpopular and Hillary has primary opponents running to her left, she is facing more backlash than perhaps she expected. Will she surrender, or will she fight back with the ferocity of which she recently boasted? If the latter, who will be left standing at the end of the day: Hillary or the base?
At a town hall meeting in Berlin, N.H., one critic urged Hillary to repudiate her vote for the Iraq war resolution. When she didn't say what he wanted to hear, the critic said he wasn't interested in anything else she had to say on the subject.
This was not merely an isolated incident. At an event in Concord, N.H., another detractor accused her of wanting to "have it both ways" by demanding an end to the war now while having voted to authorize it some five years ago.
In her responses, Hillary at least managed to be consistent for an entire weekend. She said, "Knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for [the Iraq war resolution]. I gave him the authority to send inspectors back in to determine the truth. I said this is not a vote to authorize pre-emptive war."
Presumably, Hillary picked up this line from then-presidential candidate John Kerry, who concocted the transparently false story that Democratic congressmen only voted to authorize the use of force conditionally -- upon further exhaustion of diplomatic avenues and weapons inspection. But the stubborn fact is that the Iraq war resolution contained no such conditions.
If Hillary had only been sanctioning further weapons inspections and diplomacy with her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, why does she say, "Knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for [the resolution]?" That is, if all she voted for was to encourage further weapons inspections and diplomacy, why does she need to justify her vote based on being duped on WMD? Indeed, doesn't her claim that she was demanding more inspections contradict her allegation that President Bush successfully duped her?
Hillary's glaring contradictions can only be understood in light of the undercurrent of tension between Hillary and the base. While Hillary's answers are meant to tell centrist voters that she would have supported the strike on Iraq if Saddam really did have WMD stockpiles ("knowing what we know now"), she realizes that to come right out and say that now might further alienate the base.
That's because, truth be told, most of the base wouldn't support a war even against a terrorist-supporting despot who serially violated U.N. resolutions and post-war treaties and had WMD stockpiles. Many of them believe the United States is an international pariah, an aggressor nation, an occupier and an oppressor, and that it's unfair for us to have WMD while depriving other nations of them.
It's reasonable to assume that the antiwar left would oppose almost any military action like the one against Iraq no matter how many U.N. resolutions and postwar treaties it violated or how much of an existential threat it represented. It seems blind to any such threats.
You can see this in its attitude toward Iran, constantly making excuses for the dangerous Ahmadinejad regime, downplaying its role in Iraq, and insisting that we negotiate with the letter-writing Holocaust denier. The base is bringing to bear its pressure on Democratic candidates on this matter, too, as John Edwards has already retreated from his earlier tough talk against Iran and Hillary is also beginning to soften on the issue.
Hillary's tough questioners affirm that the tension with her uncompromising base can't be attenuated unless she abandons her pursuit of projecting a hawkish image. They are not about to give ground now, especially when puffed up over the November election results, for which they claim primary credit.
The base will remain firm. The question is whether Hillary will, too. Or will she capitulate or triangulate?