Hillary Clinton’s “I’m Sorry” Problem

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Richard Cohen has an op-ed in the Washington Post today about the growing issue of whether or not Hillary Clinton will say plainly “I’m sorry” or “It was a mistake” about her vote for the Iraq War authorization. Currently, at campaign events in which voters literally beg her to say “I’m sorry,” Clinton refuses and says that the mistakes were all George Bush’s. She stubbornly sticks with the position even when voters amend their plea by saying they cannot vote for her until she admits guilt. Meet the Press had a really good synopsis of this whole affair on Sunday. It’s long, but worth a read.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to Hillary Clinton. She was in New Hampshire yesterday. Her first appearance there in 10 years. And it was quite striking how many times she was asked about her position on the war. Here she is being asked in Berlin, New Hampshire, by a voter, a very serious question. Let’s watch that exchange.


Unidentified Man: And I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake. And the reason I want to ask is because a lot of other senators have already done so, including some Republicans and including one of your competitors, Senator Edwards. And the reason I ask personally is because I, and I think a lot of other Democratic primary voters, until we hear you say that, we’re not going to hear all these other great things you’re saying.

SEN: HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that, knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it. But I also—and, I mean, obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decision. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president, who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged.

(End videotape)

That’s the crux of the issue. Hillary will say everything she needs to say except “I’m sorry.” She will even say that she has “taken responsibility for my vote,” which sounds a lot like she accepts a share of the guilt that is spread all over Washington because of the Iraq disaster, but she will not utter the words that people are dying to hear. The man asking the question was begging for a straightforward, maybe even one-word, response. Analysis from Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: Roger Simon, it’s interesting. Reporters have been asking Hillary Clinton, “Was the war a mistake? Was the war a mistake?” because all the other Democratic candidates, major ones, have said that. Now, a voter, several voters have stepped forward. Is this simply “Gotcha” or is this something that’s dead serious in the voters’ minds?

MR. SIMON: It’s dead serious. The questions come because she refuses to make Iraq part of her stump speech. And I think, and many disagree with me, that her current position not to apologize, not to say it was a mistake, is an untenable position for her. I think she will be pushed to say, before we get to the Iowa caucuses, “I was wrong,” for two reasons. One, I think that’s where the Democratic voters are in Iowa and New Hampshire; and two, it feeds the image that the critics have of her that she’s a divisive figure. If this keeps going on week after week, people are going to say, “Why doesn’t she just say she was wrong? Why does she keep this controversy growing—going on?” She doesn’t want that, and I don’t think she’s going to be able to stick to that.

A moment later Howard Kurtz added, “this seems like a cautious answer… it also feeds the image that the many journalists have of Senator Clinton as being a kind of a cold and calculating and triangulating politician.” I would add that it feeds the image that many voters have of her as a [insert any adjective here] politician. The adjective, you see, is immaterial: this response makes Hillary look like a politician, plain and simple, someone who slices and dices an issue of fundamental importance to avoid any blame and in the process disrespects the seriousness of the thing and loses connection with the everyday person who simply wants to hear straight talk and see genuine emotion.

Newsweek has a new article on John Edwards’ authenticity, and the article makes it clear: the beginning of that story, that angle, that part of Edwards’ public persona begins in the fall of 2005 when Edwards sat down and wrote on a piece of paper: “I was wrong.” His consultants urged him to adopt the position that Clinton uses now: that he regretted his vote but that it was President Bush that was truly “wrong.” Edwards rejected the position over and over — either because his vote for the war was tearing at his soul and this was the most direct way to best his inner demons, or because he knew that apologizing would becoming the only politically savvy position to hold as the war got worse and the public turned further against it.

So do it, Hillary. Apologize. Be willing to admit a mistake. Be willing to let down the guard of strength. Because the fancy footwork is simply not sustainable. Maybe make a big splash with your change of heart; save your “I’m Sorry” moment for the first debate. But however you want to handle it, remember that a growing number of people feel like Cohen. “I don’t want to know how Bush failed her,” he writes. “I want to know how she failed her country.”

Update: Roger Simon, writing at The Politico, says Clinton should “fess up instead of dodging.” His elaboration: “Hillary Clinton can be open, charming, funny and warm on the stump. When she talks about her Iraq vote, however, she sounds closed, guarded, calculating and defensive.”


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