Published on
the New York Daily News

Hillary Clinton's Original Sin

Jonathan Tasini

The media has been filled in recent days with new speculation about the reasons Hillary Clinton will be standing before the Democratic convention in Denver as her party's runnerup, not as its standard-bearer. But the truth is, when she speaks to the convention's delegates, she will do so as a candidate vanquished by one issue, and one issue only: Iraq.

Clinton, and her supporters, gave Barack Obama the political opening to enter the race - not just by her vote to authorize the war but her refusal to stand before her constituents when she ran for reelection in 2006, explain her vote and admit she had committed a grave error. Without minimizing Obama's impressive political campaign and personal talents, his decisive support came from people vehemently opposed to the war.

Rather than take a moral stand, Clinton listened to her political operatives, whose only calculus was winning, not morality. Of the many great strategic and tactical errors her campaign made (and one hopes a positive outcome of this race is the diminished roles of Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson in shaping the Democratic Party), the greatest one was believing that a vote for the Iraq war would be a strength. Stop and think of that for a moment: to win a political office, she was willing to live with the specter of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and a huge financial cost to our country, which, by one estimate, will be $3 trillion.

Looking back, I gave her an opening to repair her image with the anti-war base. In the fall of 2005, I entered the New York Democratic Senate primary to challenge Clinton's support for the Iraq war. I had no expectations of winning. Rather, I, and the many people whose voices our campaign represented, wanted a debate about the war.

We tried to engage Clinton about her vote. At virtually every turn, she refused.

Over the summer of 2006, we played a somewhat comical game over whether Clinton would agree to debate me. I issued a very polite letter to her, asking for debates. Her campaign never responded. The press repeatedly followed up. The typical response was roughly: "We'll see how the campaign develops." That was also their answer on Election Day as people were going to the polls.

Ultimately, at the New York State Democratic Party convention, I sought to have my name placed in nomination to force a debate about the war. Clinton's staff and supporters threatened delegates who were considering signing my nomination petition. Rep. Jerrold Nadler led the effort, pressuring anti-war delegates who wanted to criticize Clinton's vote; I witnessed with my own eyes Nadler corralling one of my delegate supporters, trying to get her to remove her name from the petition. (She refused.) Other delegates who were furious about the war were scared away from our campaign by the prospect that they would lose access to Clinton, or perhaps other goodies that might derive from being part of her political machine.

Here are the lessons I draw from 2006. Had Clinton used her Senate reelection race in 2006 to admit her vote authorizing the war in Iraq was wrong, she would have been preparing to accept the Democratic nomination for President. But she failed - and her supporters failed her. People like Nadler and others, having no backbone to confront a then-feared political machine, refused to demand that she admit her vote for the war was a mistake. By falling into line, they allowed her to slide by in 2006 - and they therefore bear some responsibility for her failure in the 2008 presidential race.

But, forget political careers for a moment. The real tragedy is this: Because of her national profile and, even back when the war was being debated, her seemingly clear path to victory in the 2008 primaries, Clinton could have been a national voice against the war. With her power, celebrity and influence, she could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, not to mention the loss of an unconscionable amount of money. Measured against the war's devastation, her defeat in this election pales by comparison.

Tasini is the executive director of the Labor Research Association.

© Copyright 2008

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