Columbia Journalism Review
What About Clinton 's Iraq Vote?
Press consumed with her poor strategy, not her poor choice in public office
By Zachary Roth
Thu 5 Jun 2008 07:55 PM
Now that the Democratic primary fight is (finally!) over, we're seeing a spate of postmortems from the press, analyzing how Hillary Clinton, who last year looked like the almost inevitable nominee, managed to fall short. But many of these assessments miss arguably the biggest factor of all in her defeat-and in doing so, they point up some deep-seated weaknesses in the political press corps.
Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal led the pack with a front-pager headlined "Clinton's Road to Second Place," which identified four broad categories of mistakes made by Clinton and her campaign: "mismanagement," a "flawed message," a "failure to mobilize," and "Clinton craziness."
Yesterday, brought another effort: Newsweek's Jonathan Alter offers "Five Reasons Obama Won. Five Reasons Clinton Lost." Those latter five, which in places echo the Journal, boil down to "No Respect for the Voters," "Poor Strategy," "Weak Management," "Arrogance," and "Entitlement."
Both of these pieces offer smart insights about why Clinton lost, and it's hard to dispute the salience of any of these factors. But neither the Journal nor Alter give significant consideration to an additional factor that may have been more important than any other: Clinton's vote to go to war in Iraq.
Even before this latest batch of stories, the media's efforts to explain Clinton 's struggles have consistently downplayed Iraq , as bloggers like The Atlantic 's Matthew Yglesias and Atrios have pointed out.
It's hard to remember now, but last year, when he was a dark-horse challenger, Obama's consistent opposition to the war, along with Clinton 's vote for it, provided much of the rationale for his long-shot candidacy. Without that black-and-white contrast, it's doubtful whether his insurgent campaign could have gotten off the ground.
The Journal piece mentions Iraq only in passing, arguing that Clinton 's "failure to mobilize" in caucus states, which turned out to be a major mistake, was due to the Clinton team's belief that caucuses were dominated by antiwar activists.
Similarly, Alter refers to Iraq only to make the case that Clinton 's reliance on Mark Penn was a case of "weak management." Penn, with an eye on the general election, had been instrumental in convincing her that she shouldn't apologize for her vote in favor of the war.
As for the other major outlets, The Washington Post, too, seemed to have little interest in the Iraq vote. But it did give a hint as to what it sees as the important factors in Clinton 's loss. In yesterday's A1 tick-tock of the final months of her campaign, the paper briefly summarized the early missteps that doomed her, again echoing the Journal and Alter: "a flawed message . a failure to make Clinton more appealing to Iowa voters . a strategic miscalculation about the importance of caucus states . Bill Clinton." Nothing on Iraq .
The New York Times, meanwhile, yesterday examined Clinton 's failure over the last few months to maintain and build on her support among superdelegates. Given the story's focus, it's not surprising that it doesn't mention Iraq . But the editors' decision, the morning after the announcement of Clinton 's withdrawal, to concentrate on the (admittedly important) process issue of super-delegates, and ignore Iraq , speaks for itself.
This isn't just a gotcha point. There are underlying reasons, I'd argue, why the press has made the mistake of downplaying Iraq in explaining Clinton 's loss. And there are further reasons why it matters.
For a long time after September 11, appearing "tough" on national security was, broadly speaking, good politics. The GOP gained seats in 2002, and President Bush won re- election in 2004, in large part by convincing voters that their party was more willing than the Democrats to use force. Much of the press internalized that state of affairs, assuming that the politics of national security always cut in favor of the more hawkish candidate.
But with Americans having turned against the Iraq war, that's no longer necessarily the case. And yet, much of the press appears stuck in an immediate post-9/11 mindset, unable to conceive of the idea that, especially in a Democratic primary, voters might be so strongly opposed to the war, and so angry about the way it was launched and executed, that having voted for it, as Clinton found out, is a major liability.
Whether the press understands that or not, there's an even more important point at stake here.
I asked Newsweek's Alter, who's nothing if not thoughtful and fair-minded, about his apparent discounting of Iraq in explaining Clinton 's loss. He responded, by e-mail:
I think the war vote was very important, but look at
the Edwards campaign. Because he forthrightly
apologized for having voted for the war, he was
forgiven by voters, and the vote did nothing to
impair his campaign. He lost for other reasons. Had
Clinton followed the Edwards example and apologized
in 2006 for her vote, she might well have picked up
enough points for humility to win a close race. So
the key mistake, as is often the case in politics,
is how she handled the issue, not the issue itself.
That's certainly a fair point. Perhaps Clinton could indeed have undone the damage of her war vote by apologizing for it, and thereby mitigated her substantive mistake through clever positioning after the fact.
But it really depends on how you choose to look at it.
No matter how effective her after-the-fact wiggling, it would have been far better politics, as it turned out, to have not voted as she did in the first place. In other words, there were two errors-one of substantive judgment in office, and one of post hoc positioning- which, together, doomed her. The press-based on its coverage thus far-has made a choice to focus on the latter error, of post-hoc positioning, rather than the former, of substantive judgment in office.
And by doing so, it fails to uphold its responsibility to help ensure that our political system functions with a proper degree of accountability. For our system to work properly, we have to be clear about the fact that when elected officials disappoint voters, they can face electoral consequences. If a member of Congress makes a decision that turns out badly, and then gets voted out of office, his replacement has the opportunity, and the incentive, to learn from that mistake. That's the whole point of representative democracy.
The press has a crucial role to play here, in helping to identify the message voters were sending. That means that the press has to at least be open to (indeed, I'd argue, should actively emphasize) the idea that candidates help or hurt themselves through their substantive actions in office-not just through insufficiently clever marketing schemes ("a flawed message"), or failed campaign strategies ("failure to mobilize"). If the press discounts substantive factors, it reduces the incentive for future politicians to perform better, and signals that what matters in public service is less good judgment and intellectual honesty than shrewd PR.
It's not hard to see why this matters for the future. If Hillary Clinton's loss in this epic nominating contest comes to be understood as the result of her choice of the wrong "message" and her failure to organize caucus states, we'll all be able to draw conclusions for next time around about the best campaign strategy to pursue- but about very little beyond that. If, on the other hand, her loss comes to be understood as a result, in large part, of a substantive mistake she made, while in office, on the most important question of the day, we'll have learned much more-about the mood of the country, about the reactions of our public officials in times of crisis, and about the functioning of our democracy. And so will our elected officials facing similar decisions in the future.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs