One of the most important decisions that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton made about her bid for the presidency came late last year when she ended a debate in her camp over whether she should repudiate her 2002 vote authorizing military action in Iraq.
Several advisers, friends and donors said in interviews that they had urged her to call her vote a mistake in order to appease antiwar Democrats, who play a critical role in the nominating process. Yet Mrs. Clinton herself, backed by another faction, never wanted to apologize — even if she viewed the war as a mistake — arguing that an apology would be a gimmick.
In the end, she settled on language that was similar to Senator John Kerry’s when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004: that if she had known in 2002 what she knows now about Iraqi weaponry, she would never have voted for the Senate resolution authorizing force.
Yet antiwar anger has festered, and yesterday morning Mrs. Clinton rolled out a new response to those demanding contrition: She said she was willing to lose support from voters rather than make an apology she did not believe in.
“If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from,” Mrs. Clinton told an audience in Dover, N.H., in a veiled reference to two rivals for the nomination, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina.
Her decision not to apologize is regarded so seriously within her campaign that some advisers believe it will be remembered as a turning point in the race: either ultimately galvanizing voters against her (if she loses the nomination), or highlighting her resolve and her willingness to buck Democratic conventional wisdom (if she wins).
At the same time, the level of Democratic anger has surprised some of her allies and advisers, and her campaign is worried about how long it will last and how much damage it might cause her.
“Some of her many advisers think she should’ve uttered the three magic words — ‘I was wrong’ — but she believes it’s self-evident that the Senate Iraq resolution was based on false intelligence and never should’ve come to a vote,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the former United Nations ambassador and an adviser to Mrs. Clinton on foreign policy.
Navigating the antiwar anger, and toughing it out for 11 months until the primaries, is now perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s biggest political challenge. Indeed, in many ways at this stage, Iraq has overtaken her and other candidates’ campaigns, as was evident yesterday as she rearranged her schedule to appear briefly in New Hampshire before returning to the Senate for a debate on Mr. Bush’s war strategy.
The campaign began a push yesterday to deal with its Iraq challenge. Besides her remarks in New Hampshire, Mrs. Clinton submitted a bill in the Senate to block sending more troops to Iraq, though she would not cut off financing. In a new video on her Web site, she called for starting to redeploy troops within 90 days — or else, she threatened, Congress should revoke authorization for the war.
“She is in a box now on her Iraq vote, but she doesn’t want to be in a different, even worse box — the vacillating, flip-flopping Democratic candidate that went to defeat in 2000 and ‘04,” said one adviser to Mrs. Clinton. “She wants to maintain a firmness, and I think a lot of people around her hope she maintains a firmness. That’s what people will want in 2008.”
Indeed, Mrs. Clinton believes that reversing course on her vote would invite the charge of flip-flopping that damaged Mr. Kerry or provoke the kind of accusations of political expediency that hung over Al Gore in 2000 and her and her husband, President Bill Clinton, in the 1990s, several advisers said. She has argued to associates in private discussions that Mr. Gore and Mr. Kerry lost, in part, because they could not convince enough Americans that they were resolute on national security, the associates said.
Mrs. Clinton’s image as a strong leader, in turn, is critical to her hopes of becoming the nation’s first female president. According to one adviser, her internal polling indicates that a high proportion of Democrats see her as strong and tough, both assets particularly valuable to a female candidate who is seeking to become commander in chief. Apologizing might hurt that image, this adviser said.
Mrs. Clinton’s belief in executive power and authority is another factor weighing against an apology, advisers said. As a candidate, Mrs. Clinton likes to think and formulate ideas as if she were president — her “responsibility gene,” she has called it. In that vein, she believes that a president usually deserves the benefit of the doubt from Congress on matters of executive authority.
Yet some Democrats are surprised that the Clinton campaign, which is widely regarded as a ferocious political operation, has not lanced this issue. After all, they said, a majority of Democrats tell pollsters they are against the war, and many Americans want a firm deadline to leave Iraq. Mrs. Clinton has called for capping the troop level, but has opposed a deadline.
“For the life of me I don’t understand why she can’t say, ‘I made a mistake, I was misled, the country was misled, the intelligence was manipulated,’ ” said Robert M. Shrum, a senior adviser to Mr. Kerry in 2004. “I think there’s this tremendous desire in her campaign not to get into a position where you’re identified with traditional Democratic views. But this is now a party that is strongly antiwar, and is desperate for change on big issues like Iraq and health care.”
Yet Mrs. Clinton’s refusal to apologize yesterday in Dover drew support from some voters, and she also won strong applause for saying her priority now is to end the war.
Mrs. Clinton’s advisers have been split for some time about whether she would be better off if she apologized for the vote. Mark Penn, her chief strategist, who was also Mr. Clinton’s pollster, carries considerable influence within the campaign, and he agrees with her that she should keep the “mistake” onus on Mr. Bush and turn her attention to finding “the right end” to the war, as she says.
Foreign policy advisers say they have made similar arguments: look to the future, not the past, and stand by a vote that was based on military intelligence that was widely accepted at the time.
The campaign faction that was more comfortable with an apology included advisers with war-room instincts who wanted to deal proactively with the attacks that would come. Yet they were torn, too. They argued that she should talk about the future, yet also deal decisively with her 2002 vote — either by saying it was wrong, or acknowledging that others saw it as wrong, or making a speech on Iraq.
The internal campaign debate concluded in December when Mrs. Clinton decided not to apologize or give a speech. Instead, she went on the “Today” show and, in a little-noticed remark, simply said she would not vote for the Senate Iraq resolution again.
By comparison, to the annoyance of Clinton advisers, Mr. Edwards has proved able to short-circuit questions about his own Senate vote for military action in 2002 by repeatedly calling it a mistake. He took a hard line against Iraq in 2002, then veered sharply in 2005 when he said he was wrong on the vote, and he has not suffered much politically.
A leading Republican candidate, Senator John McCain of Arizona, has defended the current war plan with language that could appeal to primary voters but perhaps hurt him in a general election. Mrs. Clinton is running, in part, a general-election strategy — taking positions on Iraq that might appeal to independents and some Republicans.
Yet her motivation not to apologize goes deeper than that, advisers said.
Her approach to leadership and national security was forged during her eight years in the White House: She believes in executive authority and Congressional deference, her advisers say, and is careful about suggesting that Congress can overrule a commander in chief.
“She thinks she will be president and will have to negotiate on the nation’s behalf with world leaders,” said one Clinton adviser. “She thinks we’re likely to still be in this mess in 2009, and coming onto the campaign trail and groveling and saying at every opportunity that you made a mistake doesn’t actually help you solve the problem.”
© Coyright 2007 New York Times