THE BLOG
06/14/2006 04:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary and Kerry Bring Me to Tears on Iraq -- for Very Different Reasons

I arrived in Washington to speak at the Take Back America Conference fast on the heels of the wildly different takes on Iraq offered up in speeches by John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, which everyone at the Washington Hilton was still buzzing about.

While getting ready to MC the Conference's gala awards dinner, I watched Kerry"s speech on the web and found myself in tears. If he had given that speech in 2004, he'd be in the White House today. And the world would be a better and safer place.

Then I watched Hillary"s speech, which also made me cry -- but for an entirely different reason.

It was déjà vu all over again. Are the consultants who helped steer Kerry over the '04 cliff now advising Hillary? Her language on Iraq was replete with the same kind of equivocation that cost Kerry the last election.

"I do not think," she said, "it is a smart strategy for the president to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government, nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain."

Is that not the second coming of I voted for it before I voted against it?

And will Democratic leaders ever learn that this kind of have-it-both-ways hedging on matters of war and security is electoral death? Voters have an instinctive aversion to it. Something in their gut tells them that if a leader can't take a stand and clearly speak their heartfelt beliefs on such life and death matters, then they won't be able to keep us safe.

When it comes to their security, people don't want finely-parsed calculations, they want confidence. Even misguided confidence like Bush's.

Listening to Hillary, you could almost smell the cold calculation hanging in the air like the smell of gunpowder after a shooting. Hillary has told confidantes that, as a woman, she cannot take a position against the war and be electactable. So her plan was obvious: try and seduce the audience of progressives by talking about all the things they agree with her on before finally -- at the very, very end of her speech -- bringing up Iraq (and then only briefly).

Here are the subjects she talked about before getting to Iraq: the integrity of our voting system, health care for children, health care for veterans, Social Security, consumer protection, FEMA, the environment, the economy, raising the minimum wage, congressional pay raises, student loans, the bankruptcy bill, Katrina, flex time for working moms and dads, paid parental leaves, climate change, foreign debt, and fighting HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria.

I guess the thinking was that by the time she finally got to her Bush-like positioning on Iraq, the activists in the audience would say, "Okay, she's not very good on Iraq, but she's wonderful on flex time!" And, indeed, some I talked to at the conference had bought into this kind of thinking -- the kind of thinking that led to Democratic disasters in 2002 and 2004.

And when she finally talked about the war, Hillary was way worse than just "not very good on Iraq." She was godawful, announcing "there must be a plan that will begin to bring our troops home" but failing to offer even a hint at what this must-have plan might be. The debate over Iraq, she said, is "a difficult conversation." Difficult for whom? The American people have already had this difficult conversation, and 61 percent of them disapprove of Bush's handling of the war. The Democrats don't even have to lead. They just have to follow the people.

The Democratic leaders who still believe that the way to get elected is to be hawkish on the war, support the flag-burning bill, and share friendly photo-ops with Newt Gingrich, Bill Frist, and Rick Santorum, and be feted by Rupert Murdoch, should keep in mind that the president who shares that belief currently has a 33 percent approval rating.

But the Democrats have utterly failed to take advantage of Bush being down. And he's starting to climb off the deck, gaining some traction following the killing of Zarqawi, his photo-op stop and hop visit to Baghdad, and his upbeat, nationally televised Rose Garden press conference.

Instead of giving the president breathing room, Democrats need to keep pounding him where he's most vulnerable -- Iraq -- and do it 24/7, day in and day out. And the only way to do this is by providing a clear alternative stand on the war.

During her speech, Hillary made much of her new Count Every Vote bill, designed to fix many of the flaws in our voting system -- an initiative that is critically important and which I wholeheartedly endorse. But the GOP's failures over the last six years are so overwhelming and so tragic that unless the Democrats shoot themselves in the face -- ie fail to make Iraq and how it has made America less safe the dominant issue in 2006 -- they should be able to win in a landslide victory that not even Katherine Harris, Ken Blackwell, and Diebold can steal.

But that won't happen if Dems keep getting dazzled by Hillary's star power, and allow it to blind them to how fatal her calculating, triangulating, inauthentic stance on Iraq would be.

I spent a long time after the awards dinner talking about all this with a number of Conference attendees. Then, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a horrible nightmare: watching Hillary at the 2010 Take Back America Conference delivering a powerful, moving speech about how we need to "speak out and stand up against a war that is rooted in deceit, sustained by a constantly shifting rationale, and paid for in the blood of young Americans who are being sent into harm's way to save politicians' pride and obscure mistakes."

That's what John Kerry said yesterday. Two years too late.