Senate Vote to Authorize War Shadows Clinton

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during the 2002 debate on whether to authorize the war in Iraq. The resolution passed in the Senate 77-23. Senate TV/Getty Images hide caption

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As a U.S. senator, arguably the most important vote that Hillary Clinton (D-NY) cast was whether the nation should go to war with Iraq.

Her 2002 vote to support President Bush's decision to authorize the war has dogged her ever since, but that fall, the drumbeat of war could not have been louder.

That year on Capitol Hill, lawmakers faced the grave decision of whether to approve this language: "The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate."

It was an especially important test for Democrats, as the young Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, made clear at the time.

"The majority of the American people tend to trust the Republican Party more on issues involving national security and defense than they do the Democratic Party, and I think we need to work to improve our image on that score," he said.

Voting for the War with Presidential Ambitions

Perhaps no one was feeling the pressures as much as Clinton. She knew the vote would be a defining one. When she spoke on the Senate floor, she said her New York constituents were on her mind.

"I come to this decision from the perspective of a senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year's terrible attacks on our nation," she said at the time. "In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers who have gone through the fires of hell may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know that I am."

Besides, Clinton said then, the administration had made a powerful case, armed with intelligence about Iraq.

"Now, I believe the facts that have brought us to this fateful vote are not in doubt," she said.

She called Saddam Hussein a tyrant, a man who even tortured his own family to hang onto power. She chose her words carefully: "A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war. It is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president. And we say to him, 'Use these powers wisely and as a last resort.'"

In the end, the Senate gave the president those powers. Clinton and 28 other Democrats voted for war.

Three Years Later, a Different Mood on the War

In 2005, President Bush had a different message for the country. Although he did not waver on his decision to go to war, he acknowledged that much of the intelligence leading up to the war turned out to be wrong.

But are members of Congress responsible for their decisions as well? And should voters hold them accountable?

One of the Democrats who voted against war was the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Bob Graham of Florida. Graham was a voice of restraint. He told his fellow Democrats that before voting, they should read the so-called National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, a 90-page classified document produced by the government's intelligence agencies.

Clinton has said she was briefed on the report, but to this day, it is not clear if she read the full document. Graham looks back today and says he holds nothing against Clinton and others who voted for war.

"It's not my job to forgive or forget. I respect that they made a judgment based on their assessment of the information," he said. "They just happened to be lied to."

But Graham says voters are within their right to examine Clinton's vote.

"I think it is appropriate to discuss your past experience of dealing with unexpected challenges and what that says about how you might deal with it in the future," he said.

Clinton says if elected president, she will end the war. But, the questions about that 2002 vote persist.

Voters Question Clinton's Decision

Roger Tilten, a voter who came to see Clinton about a year ago at a town hall in New Hampshire, told Clinton that he wanted her to say, once and for all, that her vote to authorize the war was a mistake. He noted that "a lot of other senators have already done so."

She responded, "I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it."

At a debate in Ohio last month, Clinton was asked if there is a vote she regrets.

"Well, obviously, I've said many times that although my vote for the 2002 authorization for war was a sincere vote, I would not have voted that way again," she said. "I would certainly, as president, not have taken us to war, and I regret deeply that President Bush waged a preemptive war — that I warned against and disagreed with."

No matter what she says, though, that vote remains part of the backdrop and part of this campaign.

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