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The Republican Resurrection

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Published: March 23, 2008

THE day before Barack Obama gave The Speech, Hillary Clinton gave a big speech of her own, billed by her campaign as a “major policy address on the war in Iraq.” What, you didn’t hear about it?

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Frank Rich

Barry Blitt

Clinton partisans can blame the Obamaphilic press corps for underplaying their candidate’s uncompromising antiwar sentiments. But intentionally or not, the press did Mrs. Clinton a favor. Every time she opens her mouth about Iraq, she reminds voters of how she enabled the catastrophe that has devoured American lives and treasure for five years.

Race has been America’s transcendent issue far longer than that. I share the general view that Mr. Obama’s speech is the most remarkable utterance on the subject by a public figure in modern memory. But what impressed me most was not Mr. Obama’s rhetorical elegance or his nuanced view of both America’s undeniable racial divide and equally undeniable racial progress. The real novelty was to find a politician who didn’t talk down to his audience but instead trusted it to listen to complete, paragraph-long thoughts that couldn’t be reduced to sound bites.

In a political culture where even campaign debates can resemble “Jeopardy,” this is tantamount to revolution. As if to prove the point, some of the Beltway bloviators who had hyped Mitt Romney’s instantly forgotten snake oil on “Faith in America” soon fell to fretting about whether “ordinary Americans” would comprehend Mr. Obama.

Mrs. Clinton is fond of mocking her adversary for offering “just words.” But words can matter, and Mrs. Clinton’s tragedy is that she never realized they could have mattered for her, too. You have to wonder if her Iraq speech would have been greeted with the same shrug if she had tossed away her usual talking points and seized the opportunity to address the war in the same adult way that Mr. Obama addressed race. Mrs. Clinton might have reconnected with the half of her party that has tuned her out.

She is no less bright than Mr. Obama and no less dedicated to public service. It’s not her fault that she doesn’t have his verbal gifts — who does? But her real problem isn’t her speaking style. It’s the content. Mrs. Clinton needn’t have Mr. Obama’s poetry or pearly oratorical tones to deliver a game-changing speech. She just needs the audacity of candor. Yet she seems incapable of revisiting her history on Iraq (or much else) with the directness that Mr. Obama brought to his reappraisal of his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

On Monday she once again pretended her own record didn’t exist while misrepresenting her opponent’s. “I’ve been working day in and day out in the Senate to provide leadership to end this war,” she said, once more implying he’s all words and she’s all action. But Mrs. Clinton didn’t ratchet up her criticisms of the war until she wrote a letter expressing her misgivings to her constituents in late 2005, two and a half years after Shock and Awe. By then, she was not leading but following — not just Mr. Obama, who publicly called for an Iraq exit strategy a week before the release of her letter, but John Murtha, the once-hawkish Pennsylvania congressman who called for a prompt withdrawal a few days earlier still.

What if Mrs. Clinton had come clean Monday, admitting that she had made a mistake in her original vote and highlighting her efforts to make amends since? John Edwards, arguably a more strident proponent of invading Iraq in 2003 than Mrs. Clinton, did exactly that also in the weeks before her 2005 letter. He succeeded in lifting the cloud, even among those on the left of his party.

Instead Mrs. Clinton darkened that cloud by claiming that she was fooled by the prewar intelligence that didn’t dupe nearly half her Democratic Senate colleagues, including Bob Graham, Teddy Kennedy and Carl Levin. Even worse, she repeatedly pretends that she didn’t know President Bush would regard a bill titled “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002” as an authorization to go to war. No one believes this spin for the simple reason that no one believes Mrs. Clinton is an idiot. Her patently bogus explanations for her vote have in the end done far more damage to her credibility than the vote itself.

That she has never given a forthright speech on Iraq is what can happen when your chief campaign strategist is a pollster. Focus groups no doubt say it would be hara-kiri for her to admit such a failing. But surely many Americans would have applauded her for confessing to mistakes and saying what she learned from them. As her husband could have told her, that’s best done sooner rather than later.

It’s too late now, and so the Democratic stars are rapidly aligning for disaster. Mrs. Clinton is no longer trying to overcome Mr. Obama’s lead in the popular vote and among pledged delegates by making bold statements about Iraq or any other issue. Instead of enhancing her own case for the presidency, she’s going to tear him down. As Adam Nagourney of The New York Times delicately put it last week, she is “looking for some development to shake confidence in Mr. Obama” so that she can win over superdelegates in covert 3 a.m. phone calls. If Mr. Wright doesn’t do it, she’ll seek another weapon. Mr. Obama, who is, after all, a politician and not a deity, could well respond in kind.

For Republicans, the prospect of marathon Democratic trench warfare is an Easter miracle. Saddled with the legacy of both Iraq and a cratering economy, the G.O.P. can only rejoice at its opponents’ talent for self-destruction. The Republicans can also count on the help of a political press that, whatever its supposed tilt toward Mr. Obama, remains most benevolent toward John McCain.

This was strikingly apparent last week, when Mr. McCain’s calamitous behavior was relegated to sideshow status by many, if not most, news media. At a time of serious peril for America, the G.O.P.’s presumptive presidential nominee revealed himself to be alarmingly out of touch on both of the most pressing issues roiling the country.

Never mind that Bear Stearns was disposed of in a fire sale, the dollar was collapsing, job losses hit a five-year low, and the price of oil hit an all-time high. Mr. McCain, arriving in Iraq, went AWOL on capitalism’s meltdown, delegating his economic adviser to release an anodyne two-sentence statement of confidence in Ben Bernanke.

This is consistent with Mr. McCain’s laissez-faire approach to economic matters. In January he proposed tasking any problems to “a committee headed by Alan Greenspan, whether he’s alive or dead.” This witty salvo must be very comforting to the large share of Americans — the largest since the Great Depression — who now owe more on their homes than they’re worth.

In Iraq, Mr. McCain did not repeat his April 2007 mistake of touring a “safe” market while protected by a small army. (CNN tried to revisit that market last week, but the idea was vetoed as too risky by the network’s security advisers.) Instead he made a bigger mistake. As if to emulate Dick Cheney, who arrived in Baghdad a day behind him, he embraced the vice president’s habit of manufacturing false links in the war on terror: Mr. McCain told reporters that Iran is training Al Qaeda operatives and sending them into Iraq.

His Sancho Panza, Joe Lieberman, whispered in his ear that a correction was in order. But this wasn’t a one-time slip, like Gerald Ford’s debate gaffe about Poland in 1976. Mr. McCain has said this repeatedly. Troubling as it is that he conflates Shiite Iran with Sunni terrorists, it’s even more bizarre that he doesn’t acknowledge the identity of Iran’s actual ally in Iraq — the American-sponsored Shiite government led by Nuri al-Maliki. Only two weeks before the Iraqi prime minister welcomed Mr. McCain to Baghdad, he played host to a bubbly state visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Whatever Mrs. Clinton’s or Mr. Obama’s inconsistencies about how to wind down the war, they are both models of coherence next to Mr. McCain. He keeps saying the surge is a “success,” but he can’t explain why that success keeps us trapped in Iraq indefinitely. He never says precisely what constitutes that “victory” he keeps seeing around the corner. His repeated declaration that he will only bring home the troops “with honor” is a Vietnam acid flashback recycled as a non sequitur. Our troops have already piled up more than enough honor in their five years of service under horrific circumstances. Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda proliferates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a survey by Foreign Policy magazine of 3,400 active and retired American officers finds that 88 percent believe that the Iraq war has “stretched the U.S. military dangerously thin.”

But as violence flares up again in Iraq and the American economy skids, the issues consuming the Democrats are Mr. Wright and Geraldine Ferraro, race and gender, unsanctioned primaries and unaccountable superdelegates. Unless Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton find a way to come together for the good of their country as well as their party, no speech by either of them may prevent Mr. McCain from making his second unlikely resurrection in a single political year.

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