Frame Game

The War on Error

Hillary Clinton’s sorry nonapology.

Hillary Rodham Clinton

Five years ago, Hillary Clinton supported a Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. So did I. It took me four years to admit this was a mistake. I’ve been wondering when Clinton would admit it. Now, from campaign insiders quoted in the New York Times, comes the answer: never. As she told voters a few days ago: “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.”

This is an amazingly stupid and arrogant position. If she sticks to it, it will probably kill her candidacy. And it should.

According to Clinton’s advisers, she has taken this position for several reasons. She believes in “responsibility” and would want congressional deference if she’s president. She wants to look “firm,” because that’s what voters want. She thinks an apology would look like a gimmick and a flip-flop, repeating the mistakes of Al Gore and John Kerry. That’s the “box” she’s trying to avoid.

This is a misreading of history, politics, character, and common sense. Let’s take the arguments one at a time.

1. The box. “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,” one adviser tells the Times. News flash: Clinton 1) voted to authorize the use of force, 2) now says she wouldn’t vote that way again, given what we’ve learned since, and 3) says we should start redeploying troops or revoke congressional approval of the use of force. To anyone who’s not a lawyer or a press secretary, that’s a change of position. Pretending she’s not in the box just makes her look like she’s so far inside it she can’t see where she is.

2. Kerry’s mistake. Kerry didn’t lose because he changed positions. He lost because his positions were so convoluted that every time circumstances changed, his bottom line changed with them. That’s why he voted “for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The fatal, Kerry-esque position to take in 2008 isn’t, “I made a mistake when I voted for the resolution.” It’s, “I voted for the resolution, but I wouldn’t do it again, and we should bring the troops home, but it wasn’t a mistake, because even though it was wrong in retrospect, it was correct at the time.”

3. Gore’s mistake. According to the Times story, Clinton worries that repudiating her vote would “provoke the kind of accusations of political expediency that hung over Al Gore in 2000.” Excuse me, but what could look more political than you and your advisers debating, on the front page of the New York Times, whether repudiating your vote would look political? The story says she “never wanted to apologize—even if she viewed the war as a mistake—arguing that an apology would be a gimmick.” Again: What could look more like a gimmick than continuing to invent euphemisms for mistake? Remember “no controlling legal authority”? Stop talking like a lawyer. It was a mistake. Say so.

4. The next president. Clinton “wants to maintain a firmness,” one adviser explains, adding, “That’s what people will want in 2008.” The article says Clinton

has argued to associates in private discussions that Gore and Kerry lost, in part, because they could not convince enough Americans that they were resolute on national security … 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.

This calculation is cynical, self-defeating, and wrong. There’s nothing wimpier than a presidential candidate who spends every moment trying not to look like a wimp. Worrying about your image is a female stereotype. Protecting your poll ratings is classic Bill Clinton. And refusing to admit mistakes is classic George W. Bush. Just when voters have gotten sick of a Republican president too proud, stubborn, and insecure to fess up, the Democratic presidential front-runner, a woman, decides to emulate him.

5. Responsibility. According to the article, 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.” Thinking like a president also means standing behind your decisions, an adviser argues: “Groveling and saying at every opportunity that you made a mistake doesn’t actually help you solve the problem.”

How odd. Voters just repudiated a president who thinks that stubbornness is responsibility and that admitting mistakes is groveling. The way to act responsibly is not to act like him. It also happens to be the way to get elected. And if you don’t understand the former, you don’t deserve the latter.