Over the past week, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has taken a sharp new tack. She and her surrogates are portraying her top Democratic rival and fellow Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as inconsistent on the war in Iraq.
It was former president Bill Clinton who drew first blood in the new assault on Obama's Iraq war positions at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, the same day Clinton won that state's primary.
The former president had been complaining the news media paid too little attention to Obama's record on the war. Then, he pointed an accusing finger at Obama.
"You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war, and you took that speech you're now running on off your Web site in 2004. There's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since. Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen," he said.
That prompted Obama's allies to rush to his defense. Illinois' other Democratic senator, Dick Durbin, appeared Sunday on MSNBC.
"There has never been a single moment since Barack Obama expressed his opposition to this war when he has wavered. He has been strong, and to call this a fairy tale is just unfair."
One thing everyone agrees on is that Obama made a speech in 2002, as an Illinois state senator who strongly opposed a war with Iraq. It was one week before Clinton voted in the Senate to authorize the use of force against Iraq. But in an appearance Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, Clinton accused Obama of having failed to follow through:
"If he was against the war in 2002, he should have strongly spoken out in 2004," she said. "He should have followed what he said in his speech, which was that he would not vote for funding in '05, '06 and '07."
In fact, Obama said nothing in that 2002 speech about not voting for war funding — that was two years before he was even elected to the Senate. Obama did say in a campaign speech in 2003 that he would have voted against $87 billion in war funding approved by the Senate.
But it is also true that Obama repeatedly voted for such war funding once he got to the Senate; he defended that stance in a December 2006 interview.
"I don't see any inclination on the part of those of us in Congress to cut off funding. I think that if we are going to have America's young men and women there fighting, that we have an obligation to make sure that they've got the best equipment, the body armor, the resources they need to come home safely," Obama said.
Clinton also accused Obama on Meet the Press of having kept quiet too long on Iraq, saying, "When he became a senator, he didn't go to the floor of the Senate to condemn the war in Iraq for 18 months. He didn't introduce legislation against the war in Iraq."
Obama did not give a floor speech against the war until June 2006. He did, however, introduce legislation a year ago — around the same time he opened an exploratory committee for a presidential bid — that called for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by next April.
"If we truly believe that the only solution in Iraq is a political one, and I fervently believe that, if we believe that a phased redeployment of U.S. forces in Iraq is the best and perhaps only leverage we have to force a settlement between the country's warring factions, then we should act on it," he said.
As for Clinton's vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq, she defended it on Meet the Press by invoking the name of a Republican senate colleague long critical of the war.
"It is absolutely unfair to say that the vote, as Chuck Hagel, who was one of the architects of the resolution, has said, was a vote for war," she said.
In fact, Hagel helped draft a competing resolution that would have limited the scope of the war. The truth is that Obama and Clinton now hold remarkably similar views on the war — both want a speedy withdrawal of U.S. forces. As Clinton battles for votes, she's highlighting Obama's record in the Senate, while he insists he's shown better judgment by opposing the war from the start.