Here we go again.
The last time a Clinton’s path to the Democratic presidential nomination was blocked, the campaign used a war in the Middle East to create an artificial—but politically devastating—caricature of its opponent.
The year was 1992, the opponent was Paul Tsongas, and the war in question was the Gulf War, a subject on which Tsongas and Bill Clinton had one thing in common: When the war had been debated in Congress in January 1991, they’d both agreed with its opponents.
But Bill Clinton added a hedge: After ducking reporters for months, he finally said, on the eve of the invasion, that he would probably have voted for it—even though he agreed with those who opposed it.
And then, a year later, he used his “support” for it to bury Tsongas in the critical Florida primary, attacking Tsongas’ principled war opposition to advance his ridiculous charge that Tsongas was “soft” on Israel—a lethal accusation in Florida Democratic politics.
The Clintons took Tsongas’ Gulf War position and a few out-of-context quotes and old Senate votes, turned them into scary leaflets and blanketed heavily Jewish areas with them. Then, days before the primary, they sent in a New York congressman named Stephen Solarz to ratchet up the scare tactics to absurd—but, again, devastating—heights.
“At a moment when potentially the fate of Israel hung in the balance,” Solzarz told Jewish voters, “Clinton was prepared to use force. Tsongas was not.’’
Linking opposition to the Gulf War to Israel’s security was inflammatory and disingenuous, and Bill Clinton had only begun praising the war after it was fought and won. But the tactic worked.
Tsongas was thrown on the defensive, forced to rebut each supposed example of his “softness” on Israel manufactured by the Clintons, drowning out his own message. All the while, Bill Clinton fulminated against the press, fuming about its supposed favoritism toward Tsongas—a tactic that spurred much of the press to prove its fairness by treating Clinton’s sham attacks as a straightforward policy dispute.
Jewish voters turned on Tsongas and flocked to Mr. Clinton, who won Florida, and the Tsongas campaign was effectively finished.
And now, 16 years later, the Clintons are doing the same thing.
This time their target is Barack Obama. Their charge is that he is a flip-flopping hypocrite. And their new weapon is the Iraq war.
Just like Bill Clinton with the Gulf War, Hillary Clinton would hardly seem to be in position to rub the war in her opponent’s face. She voted to authorize it (and said absolutely nothing when President Bush launched the 2003 invasion without letting U.N. weapons inspectors finish their work), while Mr. Obama, months before the invasion, said that it would be “a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.”
That prescient war opposition, and the contrast with Hillary’s own war vote, has helped fuel the Obama campaign. So now the Clintons are trying to discredit him with the same strategy they used against Paul Tsongas.
Bill Clinton got the ball rolling just before the New Hampshire primary with his “biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen” characterization of Obama’s war opposition. The Clinton argument: Mr. Obama may have opposed the war in 2002 and 2003, but as a senator, he’s voted to fund it.
Hillary echoed the attack a few days later on NBC’s Meet the Press, and she dispatched Jamie Rubin, a State Department spokesman under Bill Clinton, to play the Solarz role, vouching for the Clintons’ version of events and asserting that there’s really no difference between Hillary and Mr. Obama on Iraq.
And once again they are launching their attack while Bill Clinton simultaneously slams the media for its supposed unfairness.
The Clinton attack is substantively thin. It’s certainly true that Mr. Obama has voted to fund the war—but those votes also provided funding for troops in the field, and they came only after it was clear that Congress lacked the votes to force an unwilling president to begin a withdrawal. Some of the top war opponents in Congress—like Wisconsin’s David Obey, who opposed the invasion from the start—have also resisted the idea of cutting off funds.
If the inability of Congressional Democrats to stop the war has taught us anything, it’s that the only vote on Iraq that has really mattered these past five years was the very first one, in October 2002.
Hillary Clinton supported it and Barack Obama opposed it.
Simple facts didn’t get in the way of Bill Clinton’s argument 16 years ago. They certainly don’t seem to bother Hillary Clinton today.