By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—John Edwards had a point: Where have Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama been these last few weeks while others were shouting to the rooftops about the worsening debacle in Iraq? Sudden attacks of laryngitis? Cat got their tongues?
Clinton has a point, too, and so does Obama. When Edwards called them out at the Democratic presidential debate Sunday night, Clinton was right when she said that this is George W. Bush’s war, not anybody else’s. And Obama, who publicly opposed the war from the beginning, was right to snap at Edwards—who, like Clinton, voted to authorize military action—that his righteous outrage was “four and a half years late.”
Still, Edwards is asking the right questions. If the war in Iraq is the most urgent issue facing the country—and both Clinton and Obama said bringing the troops home would be their first priority as president—then why aren’t theirs the loudest, clearest, most eloquent voices in opposition to Bush’s tragic misadventure? Each is asking for the opportunity to lead the nation. Shouldn’t they be showing some leadership on the war?
Yes, both Clinton and Obama can point to anti-war speeches, position papers and legislation. But when push came to shove—the vote on continued funding for the war—neither of the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination emerged from the Senate chamber swathed in glory.
Both finally voted against the spending bill, which had been stripped of any timetables for U.S. withdrawal or meaningful benchmarks that the Iraqi government would have to meet. But they waited until the last minute to declare their intentions, as if each were waiting to see what the other would do. “They went quietly to the floor of the Senate, cast the right vote,” Edwards said in the debate. “But there is a difference between leadership and legislating.”
Edwards’ motivation for going on the attack is transparent—he’s stuck in third place in the polls and needs to start gaining some ground. The war issue is Clinton’s obvious vulnerability among Democratic primary voters, and her way of trying to neutralize it—saying that the differences among the Democratic candidates are minor, and that they are essentially united against the war—has had limited success.
Edwards has abjectly apologized for his vote while in the Senate to approve the resolution giving Bush the authority to take military action in Iraq. For whatever reason, Clinton won’t say she’s sorry. She explains that she thought she was voting for continued weapons inspections—that she never imagined Bush would fire the loaded gun that Congress had just handed him.
What’s done is done, Clinton says, and she’s right that the more urgent question is how to get out of Iraq (although many Democrats still want to talk about how we got in). The party has a right, though, to expect its standard-bearer to lead the anti-war campaign from the front, not the rear.
Obama should have no problem at all on the war, since he was such an early opponent. In fact, he could be doing the same thing as Edwards, using the war against Clinton. That’s not Obama’s style—he introduced himself to the nation as a different kind of politician, one who seeks to build bridges and engineer consensus. But somehow he, too, managed to give the impression that his vote on the funding bill was more a matter of tactics than conscience.
Obama’s sharp comeback to Edwards’ jibe was the first real flash of steel we’ve seen from him. Still, the impression remains that he, like Clinton, is willing to let others lead the confrontation with Bush over the war.
The image that comes to mind is of two smart and competitive kids taking a civics test, each trying to peek at the other’s paper, knowing that if they give the same answers, neither can get a better grade.
There’s something of a disconnect, though. The Democrats’ two leading candidates for the nomination don’t reflect how passionately many of the party faithful feel about the war. Official Washington seems to think the war issue is on summer hiatus—Bush got his funding, the “surge” forces are in place and the next major decision point won’t come until September. Meanwhile, though, the war is getting bloodier, at least as far as U.S. troops are concerned—16 soldiers killed in the first three days of June alone. Deadly car bombings are more frequent than ever, and no political solution is remotely in sight.
For American troops and military families, senators, there’s no vacation. Please speak up.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group