Wealthy Frenchman

Monday, May 08, 2006

Clarity Vs. Celebrity

By Bob Herbert

Few people have ever heard of Jonathan Tasini. He's a low-key labor organizer and writer from Upper Manhattan who is trying to piece together a primary challenge to the re-election bid of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, primarily because of her stance on the Iraq war. Mr. Tasini is against the war and wants American troops pulled out of Iraq forthwith.

Senator Clinton's position is -- well, that's a problem. It's not at all clear what Senator Clinton's position is. And for a Democratic Party that has suffered a succession of brutal defeats with excessively cautious candidates, Mrs. Clinton's indecisiveness on the war may be a hint of yet another disaster in the making.

Mr. Tasini is not so deluded that he thinks he can hijack the Democratic Senate nomination from Mrs. Clinton. He said, ''People often ask me, 'Don't you think this race is impossible?' My answer is, 'Of course! You're dealing with someone who has enormous name recognition and celebrity.' ''

But celebrity, he said, is no substitute for an honest and vigorous debate on a matter as fundamentally important as war.

Mr. Tasini favors a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq as quickly as possible, within several months at most. What is more important than whether his timetable is feasible is his insistence that the Democratic Party needs to come to grips with this war. ''What makes us different from Republicans?'' he asked. ''Where is the soul of the Democratic Party if we do not stand against immoral, illegal wars? Pre-emptive wars.''

After more than three years of fighting and more than 2,400 American deaths, you still need a magnifying glass to locate the differences between Mrs. Clinton and the Bush administration on the war. It's true, as the senator argues, that she has been a frequent and sometimes harsh critic of the way the war has been conducted. In a letter to constituents last fall she wrote, ''I have continually raised doubts about the president's claims, lack of planning and execution of the war, while standing firmly in support of our troops.''

But in terms of overall policy, she seems to be right there with Bush, Cheney, Condi et al. She does not regret her vote to authorize the invasion, and still believes the war can be won. Her view of the ultimate goal in Iraq, as her staffers reiterated last week, is the establishment of a viable government capable of handling its own security, thus enabling the U.S. to reduce its military presence and eventually leave.

That sounds pretty much the same as President Bush's mantra: ''Our strategy in Iraq is that as the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down.''

What that means is that there is no end to the war in sight.

Other prominent Democrats have belatedly changed their tune on Iraq. Senator John Kerry has called for a complete withdrawal of American combat troops by the end of the year. His running mate in the 2004 presidential election, former Senator John Edwards, declared last fall that ''it was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002.''

But as yet there is no full-throated public debate, much less anything approaching a consensus, within the party on Iraq. Democrats are still paranoid about being perceived as soft on national security.

With superhawk Republicans like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani making their way toward the starting gate for the 2008 White House run, the terminally timid Democrats continue to obsess about what they ought to be saying, neurotically analyzing every syllable they hesitantly utter, as opposed to simply saying what they really believe.

Aides who are close to Mrs. Clinton suggested last week that she might be holding her fire, waiting until a new Iraqi government is established before speaking more openly and candidly about the war. That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the dying continues. As I was wrapping up the last of the interviews for this column on Friday, word came in that three more American soldiers had been killed in Iraq.

As a member of the Armed Services Committee and the early front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Mrs. Clinton has a special obligation to Democratic voters. They deserve much better leadership than they've been getting from their party on President Bush's mindless trillion-dollar tragedy in Iraq.


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