Hillary seemed rattled.
Up until now, she has displayed remarkable imperturbability - gliding along with the help of good lighting, a hearty guffaw and a clever husband.
But on Sunday in New Hampton, Iowa, Hillary lost her cool at last. Sparring with a voter on Iran, she sounded defensive and paranoid.
A Democrat, Randall Rolph, asked Senator Clinton why he should back her when she did not learn her lesson after voting to authorize W. to use force in Iraq. He did not understand how she could have voted yea to urge W. to label Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, possibly setting the stage for more Cheney chicanery.
Hillary said that "labeling them a terrorist organization gives us the authority to impose sanctions on their leadership. ...I consider that part of a very robust diplomatic effort."
Fearful that her questioner was an enemy spy creeping into her perfect little world, she suggested that he had been put up to the question and did not have his information right.
"I take exception," Mr. Rolph insisted. "This is my own research. ... I'm offended that you would suggest that."
Hillary apologized and said that she had been asked "the very same question in three other places." She explained that she had signed on to a rewritten version of the amendment that did not, as he claimed, give a green light for combat.
In the original "sense of Senate on Iran" document, sponsored by Joe Lieberman and the Republican Jon Kyl last month, there was a paragraph that supported "the prudent and calibrated use of all instruments of United States national power in Iraq, including diplomatic, economic, intelligence and military instruments, in support of the policy with respect to" Iran. That original draft, called "tantamount to a declaration of war" and "Dick Cheney's fondest pipe dream" by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, was softened.
Even so, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd voted no, and Barack Obama would have voted no if he had voted.
If you know the dingbat vice president is agitating for a conflict with Iran, if you know that Condi is chasing after Cheney with a butterfly net on Iran and Syria, if you know you can't believe anything this administration says, why vote to give them more backing on their dysfunctional Middle East policy?
The schism in the administration is deepening in a way that should alarm Hillary. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper report in today's Times that Cheney and his hawks are arguing that the Israeli intelligence about Syria's nascent nuclear capabilities that led to last month's Israeli strike on Syria was credible and should dictate a harsher policy toward Syria and North Korea, while Condi, Bob Gates and calmer heads "did not believe the intelligence presented so far merits any change in the American diplomatic approach."
Hillary's hawkish Iran vote was an ill-advised move, especially given her private view that Cheney is untrustworthy and given Sy Hersh's New Yorker report claiming that Cheney had pushed to devise a plan to attack the Revolutionary Guard facilities in Iran.
She made a course correction on Oct. 1, co-sponsoring legislation introduced by Mr. Webb to prohibit the use of funds for military operations against Iran without explicit Congressional authorization.
Her opponents have sounded the fool-me-once-shame-on-you, fool-me-twice-shame-on-me drumbeat. Obama chided Hillary for her willingness "to once again extend to the president the benefit of the doubt." John Edwards wondered if in "six months from now he goes to war in Iran, are we going to hear her once again say if only I had known then what I know now?"
When Hillary voted to let W. use force in Iraq, she didn't even read the intelligence estimate. She wasn't trying to do the right thing. She was trying to do the opportunistic thing. She felt she could not run for president, as a woman, if she played the peacenik.
By throwing in with Joe Lieberman and the conservative hawks on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard issue, she once more overcompensated in a cynical way. She'd like to paint Obama as the weak reed who wants to cozy up to dictators, while she's the one who will play tough. It was odd, given her success in the debates conveying the sense that she is the manliest candidate among the Democrats, that she felt the need to man-up on Iran.
But maybe she knows that Rudy will hurl thunderbolts at her, as he did in the debate yesterday, suggesting that she doesn't have the guts to use a military option to stop Iran from going nuclear.
Voters seem more concerned with Hillary's political expediency - which the vote underscored - than with her ability to be manly.
Her camp seems to think her vote was a safe one because W. and Cheney do not have the time or support to bomb Iran, and that Bob Gates can stop it. But she may be underestimating W. and Cheney. She should be at least as paranoid about that pair as she was about an Iowa Democrat.
Maureen Dowd, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, became a columnist on The New York Times Op-Ed page in 1995.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company