What Did You Do in the War?

Once upon a time, a Senator with Presidential ambitions from New York galvanized the country by announcing to America, point-blank, that he was wrong about the war.

“I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on the present path,” said Robert F. Kennedy in March of 1968. “It may be the effort was doomed from the start.”

Of the New Yorkers in Washington today who voted to authorize the President’s invasion of Iraq, the most prominent one to have gone through a similarly frank and public self-evaluation is not Hillary Clinton, and not Charles Schumer.

Try Anthony Weiner.

“Bring our troops home immediately,” Mr. Weiner now says. “Now we must remove them and force the Iraqi population to make some hard choices.”

Mrs. Clinton, for her part, continues to articulate a plan that is difficult to distinguish from that of the White House, and she barely mentioned Iraq in an otherwise wide-ranging address this week at the state Democratic convention. And the normally voluble Mr. Schumer has hardly been heard from on the subject.

Even the New Yorkers who voted against the war are feeling not so much vindication as subdued relief.

“Those of us who did not vote for the war are eternally grateful for that and sleep a lot better at night,” said Representative Louise Slaughter. “And we can face our constituents.”

It’s a far cry from Kennedy’s style of leadership. Today’s delegation talks in hushed tones, operating with little consequence but near-complete political impunity on one of the most important issues of our time.

While some other national leaders are staking out positions—complete withdrawal, tactical redeployment, the managed breakup of Iraq—Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Schumer and a fractured, majority-Democratic New York delegation in the House of Representatives have been largely missing from the debate. For New York’s representatives in Washington, apparently, avoiding Iraq is a winning strategy.

“What they do is simply soft-pedal the issue,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “There is a real gap between the Democrats serving in Washington and the party base. They condemn the manner in which the Bush administration has conducted the war and praise the soldiers, and with some people, that gets them off the hook.”

Granted, Iraq is a politically difficult and intellectually torturous problem with no easy answers. But on the question of advocating a significant tactical or philosophical change in the pursuit of a war that has claimed the lives so far of 2,475 American soldiers, we have heard little from New York’s most prominent leaders.

Take, for example, the usually gregarious, almost omnipresent Chuck Schumer. Last week, Mr. Schumer led the charge against Washington’s 40 percent reduction in homeland-security funding to the city. True to his dogged work ethic and tireless lobbying on New York’s behalf, he cried foul and claimed the city was being shortchanged. But weighing in on the parochial issue of federal aid is a no-brainer. On Iraq, he has been better at diagnosing the problem than prescribing any sort of solution.

On May 28, Mr. Schumer appeared on the CBS news program Face the Nation. “The American people see there’s really no plan in Iraq. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mr. Schumer. “What the Democrats have done—and this is what we should do—we are holding the President accountable. As the opposition party in Congress, we’re saying, ‘Where is your plan?’”

In response to The Observer’s request for a clarification of Mr. Schumer’s current position on Iraq, his spokeswoman, Risa Heller, sent with this: “In a post-9/11 world, where small groups of terrorists can inflict maximum destruction in the blink of an eye, Senator Schumer believes that America needs a foreign policy that is proactive. But it must also be multilateral, thoughtful and well thought through. It is on the last three points that George Bush has been an abject failure.”

Mrs. Clinton, the Democratic front-runner in every public poll of prospective Presidential candidates, hasn’t exactly been a leading voice in the debate either. At her Senate re-election coronation at the state Democratic convention in Buffalo last week, she talked about health care, education, transportation, alternative energy, revitalizing American manufacturing, intellectual property, fair labor laws, the minimum wage and making college affordable before mentioning the word “Iraq.”

And before she spoke, Clinton aides successfully scrambled to prevent an anti-war candidate, Jonathan Tasini, from getting enough delegate signatures to appear on the ballot.

“If I weren’t in this race, the two words ‘Iraq War’ would never have been mentioned at the state Democratic convention in Buffalo,” said Mr. Tasini, the pesky personification of Mrs. Clinton’s Iraq problem. “The fact is that my opponent studiously avoids any mention of Iraq. She doesn’t want to talk about the war.”

When Mrs. Clinton does talk about Iraq, it is often in vague or inscrutable terms that seem calculated to appeal to a broad swath of potential voters on both the left and the right, on the coasts and in the heartland.

“Once we get that government set up, I have said we must deliver a very clear message,” Mrs. Clinton said in a recent speech to a group of realtors on Long Island. “I disagree with the President that we are going to be there with no end in sight, I think that sends the wrong message. The Iraqi government and the Iraqi people have to be willing to secure their country for themselves. I disagree with some of my dear friends who say set a date certain, say we’re pulling out—six months and we’re gone—because I think that sends the wrong message.”

In an e-mailed statement, Mrs. Clinton’s spokeswoman Jennifer Hanley argued that Mrs. Clinton has been a “consistent and persistent critic” of the Bush administration on Iraq, and that she believes that 2006 should be a “period of significant transition.”

So is that the right message?

“She is trying to get the best of both worlds,” said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of the liberal anti-war political-action organization MoveOn.org. “She tried to come across as a critic of the Bush administration while also making people think she is a moderate.”

While anti-war activists complain, however, there appears to be little political incentive for Mrs. Clinton or any of the other New York leaders to alter their course of action.

“There is a political divide within both parties about whether it is smart to offer alternatives,” said Brian Katulis, a Middle East policy analyst who co-wrote the Center for American Progress’ Iraq plan, which argues for a withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2007, with tactical redeployment to neighboring Kuwait. Mr. Katulis defended those Democrats who voted for the war, reasoning that it was nearly impossible to predict that the Bush administration would have had no postwar plan.

“We have the luxury of writing what we think is good policy,” said Mr. Katulis of his think tank. “I am not going to judge anyone in the hot seat. I would be cautious to get out as far as we have.”

And Simon Rosenberg, founder of the centrist New Democrat Network, argued that moderate Democrats like New York’s Senators were trying to make the best out of a bad situation. “We are trying to work with this government and administration to make this plan work,” he said, referring to President Bush’s efforts to get an Iraqi government up on its feet.

Last Saturday, in a noisy Albany hotel room papered with signs reading “Fair Share and Health Care” and “Unite Here,” delegates at the nominating convention of the staunchly liberal Working Families Party angrily debated whether Hillary Clinton deserved their backing despite her position on the war in Iraq.

“Hillary Clinton has actively supported this war from Day 1 and still does to this day,” said Albany delegate Barbara Quint.

“She talks about Middle East regional conferences,” said Donald Shaffer of Manhattan. “It’s nonsense. She can’t come out clearly, one way or the other.”

“We have to send her a message,” added Bill Leavitt of Brooklyn: “You must change your position now or you will lose the Presidency.”

The result, after all that?

Given that forgiving dynamic, it’s not surprising that New York’s voice should be so muted in the political dialogue over Iraq.

Sept. 11 initially gave a political and moral weight to the actions of New York’s representatives that has since disappeared. And though Mrs. Clinton and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Schumer are prominent figures within the national party on other issues, they have not used those high profiles to push publicly for change in Iraq.

“I think that Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton are two voices among many in the Democratic caucus in Congress,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report.

Some national Democrats, by sharp contrast, are trying to break out of the pack, if belatedly. John Kerry and John Edwards, the Democratic standard-bearers in 2004, have retracted their votes. And just last week, Evan Bayh—a former chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council who may run for President in two years—did the same, telling an audience in Iowa: “I wouldn’t cast the same vote today as I did then.”

This is not to say that there have been no voices of dissent within New York’s own delegation. Representative Jerrold Nadler, who argues for an immediate withdrawal of American troops in Iraq, preceded Mrs. Clinton on the stage in Buffalo, arguing, “Enough with the lies and deceit and evasions.”

Charles Rangel, the leader of the New York delegation, has fiercely criticized the war, as has Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens. “I thought those who voted for the war were making a mistake then, and I think those who continue to support the war are still making a mistake,” said Mr. Meeks.

And Representative Maurice Hinchey, a liberal from upstate, sounded a similar refrain.

“I was surprised from the very beginning that there was not vocal opposition from prominent leaders in New York,” he said. “The only way it makes sense to me is that people are looking at the broad array of issues instead of one specific issue.”

That, at least, seemed to be the case up at the Working Families Party convention in Albany.

“There are a lot of important issues—war is only one of them,” said Sam Williams, a United Auto Workers representative from Buffalo who stood outside the convention room with a Hillary sticker on the lapel of his gray suit.

“It’s difficult to find anybody who is 100 percent with you on all the issues,” he said, conceding that when it came to Iraq, “I don’t know in depth her actual position.”

When asked about Mr. Schumer’s position on Iraq, he thought for a second before answering. “You just don’t hear about it,” he said. “It’s probably because it’s a no-win situation for them.”

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that sort of comment about Kennedy and Vietnam.

Kennedy “was very sensitive to the fact that moving 180 degrees in politics is not an easy way to go,” said John Seigenthaler Sr., who served as an assistant to Kennedy in the 1960’s. “There is a barrier topped with barbed wire that he had to get over. He had to climb that barrier, and he felt that pain.”

Mr. Seigenthaler described traveling to Iowa with Kennedy in late 1967, when he was wrestling with his position on Vietnam, and argued that Kennedy was seeking an opportunity to change his position that wouldn’t seem political or crass.

“He came to realize that his expressions would help move some of the electorate in the direction it needed to go,” said Mr. Seigenthaler. “We were still a divided country. I don’t know if any of the potential candidates now have moved this far along.”

What Did You Do in the War?