War Vote Dogs Hillary on Campaign Trail

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Humphrey spent much of the '68 campaign being dogged by anti-Vietnam War protesters. hide caption

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Some Democrats wanted Lee Hamilton for VP in 1992.  How 'bout Secretary of State?

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Sixteen years ago today, Massachusetts GOP Congressman Silvio Conte died. hide caption

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On the campaign trail, the Democratic presidential frontrunner was constantly getting booed. Catcalls would often greet a speech, and the reasons were always the same: It was the war. Whatever popular support there had been for the fighting had long since dissipated, and with American soldiers dying each day, the opposition was growing, especially among Democratic voters. The year was 1968, the war was Vietnam, and the candidate was Hubert Humphrey.

Humphrey was, of course, Lyndon Johnson's loyal vice president. He was torn over Vietnam: On the one hand, he needed LBJ as an ally, but on the other, he was aware that Democratic voters were as angry with him as they were with the president over the situation in Southeast Asia. It got to the point that nearly anywhere Humphrey went, he was bombarded by antiwar protestors. His hesitance to speak out against the war until late in the campaign is thought to be a key reason why he lost to Richard Nixon that year.

I was thinking about Humphrey's situation last Friday, as I watched Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) address a packed house at the Washington Hilton. Every announced and all-but-announced Democratic presidential candidate showed up at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, the first opportunity for the Dems and the media to see all '08 hopefuls in one setting. Clinton closed out the session on Friday – more candidates showed up on Saturday – but she was the only one to get heckled from some in the assembled throng. It stemmed, of course, from (1) her vote in 2002 to authorize the President to go to war in Iraq, and (2) her refusal to disown that vote.

Regarding the first part, Clinton is not alone. Of the other Democratic presidential candidates who were in Congress in 2002, Sens. Joe Biden (DE), Chris Dodd (CT) and John Edwards (NC) all voted for the war; only Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH) voted no. But all three senators have since renounced their vote. Not Hillary. And that has caused some on the antiwar left to go apoplectic.

That is not to suggest that Clinton stands by comments she made in 2003, when she said she voted for the war "with conviction," or in 2004, when she said she doesn't regret her vote, because "clearly Saddam Hussein has been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade." She is no longer calling for sending more troops to the region. On the contrary, she is a forceful critic of the Bush policy. But Clinton won't go as far as some, such as Kucinich and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who say it's time for Congress to cut off funding of the war. And she won't, unlike Edwards and Dodd, dismiss the Senate's attempt at a resolution denouncing the Bush plan to send more troops as toothless because it is non-binding. "I've been cursed with the 'responsibility gene,'" Clinton has said, keenly aware that there is a general election campaign to win if she is the nominee.

That may not be enough for some. At the DNC affair last Friday, she made a point of announcing, "If I had been president in October of 2002, I would not have started this war." Two people standing in front of me chuckled, with one saying, "'Yeah, but I would have voted for it.'"

Clinton may well be the "frontrunner" for the nomination – a curious phrase to throw around some 49 weeks before the Iowa caucuses – but her position on Iraq is not the most popular. Edwards' fierce denunciation of the war has won him favorable mention with the party's grassroots activists, but it makes him almost unrecognizable from that guy who was John Kerry's running mate in 2004. Perhaps being liberated from public office has given him a new perspective.

(While we're tabulating antiwar purity, check out this exchange, courtesy of James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal's Opinion Journal web feature. NBC's Tim Russert, to VP candidate Edwards on Oct. 10, 2004: "If you knew today, and you do know, there is – there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would you still vote to go to war with Iraq?" Edwards' response: "I would have voted for the resolution, knowing what I know today, because it was the right thing to do to give the president the authority to confront Saddam Hussein. I think Saddam Hussein was a very serious threat. I stand by that, and that's why we stand behind our vote on the resolution.")

Barack Obama, who was not in the Senate in 2002, has been less prone to raise his voice about the war, but his credentials on the issue have not been questioned; as an Illinois state legislator at the time, he spoke out publicly against it before it even began. But, at least judging by his remarks at the DNC meeting, he does not think it is especially productive to focus on who voted how back then: "We all have a responsibility now to put forth a plan that offers the best chance of ending the bloodshed and bringing the troops home."

Which leads to this question:

Q: My problem with Hillary Clinton is not that she's cautious or calculating, as I've heard you say in the past, but her rationale for her vote in 2002 to go to war in Iraq. She says over and over again that she was misled by President Bush, that he lied about [weapons of mass destruction] but that she believed him. How does being duped by Bush become a badge of honor, a rallying cry for which she should become the Democratic nominee for president? What about all those who voted against the war? Why were they able to avoid being duped by Bush when she wasn't? And while we're on the subject, can you list how the Democrats in the Senate voted on the war in 2002? – Lisa Gross, Nyack, N.Y.

A: In the early morning hours of Oct. 11, 2002, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 77-23 giving President Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq. Forty-eight of the Senate's 49 Republicans voted yes; only Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee dissented. Of the 51 Democrats (including the independent from Vermont), 29 voted yes and 22 voted no. Here's the Dem vote breakdown (*means no longer in the Senate):

YES (29): Baucus (MT), Bayh (IN), Biden (DE), Breaux (LA)*, Cantwell (WA), Carnahan (MO)*, Carper (DE), Cleland (GA)*, Clinton (NY), Daschle (SD)*, Dodd (CT), Dorgan (ND), Edwards (NC)*, Feinstein (CA), Harkin (IA), Hollings (SC)*, Johnson (SD), Kerry (MA), Kohl (WI), Landrieu (LA), Lieberman (CT), Lincoln (AR), Miller (GA)*, Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE), Reid (NV), Rockefeller (WV), Schumer (NY), Torricelli (NJ)*.

NO (22): Akaka (HI), Bingaman (NM), Boxer (CA), Byrd (WV), Conrad (ND), Corzine (NJ)*, Dayton (MN)*, Durbin (IL), Feingold (WI), Graham (FL)*, Inouye (HI), Jeffords (I-VT)*, Kennedy (MA), Leahy (VT), Levin (MI), Mikulski (MD), Murray (WA), Reed (RI), Sarbanes (MD)*, Stabenow (MI), Wellstone (MN)*, Wyden (OR).

One more note about Clinton, this from Lisa McNellis of East Haddam, Conn.: "It occurred to me that, should Hillary Clinton be elected president (and complete a full first term), there will be a period in American history of 24 years that this country was run by the same two families. That's not exactly the history the Democratic Party (or any American) should be looking to make."

Q: The 2008 presidential election is a long way off. It's too early to even know who the nominees will be. But if the Democrats win, what are the chances that former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-IN) will become secretary of state? – Jamie Eiler, New Albany, Ind.

A: Hamilton, the co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, is a well-respected Democratic voice on foreign policy and national security. Still, my early guess for the job is New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, currently seeking the presidential nomination himself.

Q: Barack Obama announced he is trying to quit smoking. Can you tell us about presidential candidates and smoking? Who was the last smoker to enter the White House? Was it Lyndon Johnson? – John Bohrer, Monroe Township, N.J.

A: LBJ is said to have been a heavy smoker until he suffered a heart attack in 1955, when he was Senate majority leader. Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan were reputed to be several-packs-a-day smokers years before running for president. I recently saw online a Christmas card sent by the first President Bush of the entire Bush family that showed George W. with a cigarette in his hands. Gerald Ford preferred a pipe. And cigars were the tobacco of choice for both John Kennedy and the Non-Inhaler-in-Chief, Bill Clinton.

The last big-time cigarette smoker in the White House may have been Franklin Roosevelt, who, interestingly enough, was often seen photographed with a cigarette holder in his teeth but rarely ever in a wheelchair.

Podcast: Give me a break. If astronaut Lisa Nowak could drive all the way from Houston to Orlando non-stop, don't you think you could just visit www.npr.org to listen to the latest episode of our "It's All Politics" podcast? Is that too much to ask? (And don't tell me it depends!) Remember, new edition of the podcast goes up every Thursday afternoon.

Last week, we reveled in a delightful note from John Evans of Bucharest, Romania, who downloads the podcast and listens every Friday morning on his way to work. This week's missive from a listener is more critical. Claudia Richter of San Francisco writes, "I love your podcast and look forward to it every week. I listen to several political podcasts and enjoy the humorous aspects of yours; your dialogue is priceless. But" – ah, there's always a "but" – "I was extremely disappointed that last week's podcast was barely nine minutes and had so little content. At a minimum, you guys could have talked about some of the other aspects of Joe Biden's interview, like his comments on Hillary's and Edwards' positions on Iraq, or talked about the various non-binding Iraq war resolutions in the Senate or Hillary's trip to Iowa. I think you guys owe your loyal listeners a longer program next week. In fact, make that a longer program every week! P.S. I think the contrast to the prior week's podcast, which might have been one of my favorite ones ever, contributed to my disappointment last week."

Claudia, all I can say is ... if you only could hear the stuff that doesn't make it to the final version of the podcast! But we'll do better this week.

Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please don't forget to include your city and state.

This Day in Political History: Rep. Silvio Conte (R-MA), a liberal Republican and the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, who had been in Congress since 1959, dies two days after surgery to remove a blood clot in his brain. Conte was 69 (Feb. 8, 1991).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: www.npr.org/templates/contact/index.php?personId=1930204&columnId=1930201">politicaljunkie@npr.org

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