Wrong Is Right
By PAUL KRUGMAN
Many people are perplexed by the uproar over Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to say, as former Senator John Edwards has, that she was wrong to vote for the Iraq war resolution. Why is it so important to admit past error? And yes, it was an error — she may not have intended to cast a vote for war, but the fact is that the resolution did lead to war; she may not have believed that President Bush would abuse the power he was granted, but the fact is that he did.
The answer can be summed up in two words: heckuva job. Or, if you want a longer version: Medals of Freedom to George Tenet, who said Saddam had W.M.D., Tommy Franks, who failed to secure Iraq, and Paul Bremer, who botched the occupation.
For the last six years we have been ruled by men who are pathologically incapable of owning up to mistakes. And this pathology has had real, disastrous consequences. The situation in Iraq might not be quite so dire — and we might even have succeeded in stabilizing Afghanistan — if Mr. Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney had been willing to admit early on that things weren’t going well or that their handpicked appointees weren’t the right people for the job.
The experience of Bush-style governance, together with revulsion at the way Karl Rove turned refusal to admit error into a political principle, is the main reason those now-famous three words from Mr. Edwards — “I was wrong” — matter so much to the Democratic base.
The base is remarkably forgiving toward Democrats who supported the war. But the base and, I believe, the country want someone in the White House who doesn’t sound like another George Bush. That is, they want someone who doesn’t suffer from an infallibility complex, who can admit mistakes and learn from them.
And there’s another reason the admission by Mr. Edwards that he was wrong is important. If we want to avoid future quagmires, we need a president who is willing to fight the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom on foreign policy, which still — in spite of all that has happened — equates hawkishness with seriousness about national security, and treats those who got Iraq right as somehow unsound. By admitting his own error, Mr. Edwards makes it more credible that he would listen to a wider range of views.
In truth, it’s the second issue, not the first, that worries me about Mrs. Clinton. Although she’s smart and sensible, she’s very much the candidate of the Beltway establishment — an establishment that has yet to come to terms with its own failure of nerve and judgment over Iraq. Still, she’s at worst a triangulator, not a megalomaniac; she’s not another Dick Cheney.
I wish we could say the same about all the major presidential aspirants.
Senator John McCain, whose reputation for straight talk is quickly getting bent out of shape, appears to share the Bush administration’s habit of rewriting history to preserve an appearance of infallibility. Last month he asserted that he knew full well what we were getting into by invading Iraq: “When I voted to support this war,” he said on MSNBC, “I knew it was probably going to be long and hard and tough, and those that voted for it and thought that somehow it was going to be some kind of an easy task, then I’m sorry they were mistaken.”
But back in September 2002, he told Larry King, “I believe that the operation will be relatively short,” and “I believe that the success will be fairly easy.”
And as for Rudy Giuliani, there are so many examples of his inability to accept criticism that it’s hard to choose.
Here’s an incident from 1997. When New York magazine placed ads on city buses declaring that the publication was “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for,” the then-mayor ordered the ads removed — and when a judge ordered the ads placed back on, he appealed the decision all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Now imagine how Mr. Giuliani would react on being told, say, that his choice to head Homeland Security is actually a crook. Oh, wait.
But back to Mrs. Clinton’s problem. For some reason she and her advisers failed to grasp just how fed up the country is with arrogant politicians who can do no wrong. I don’t think she falls in that category; but her campaign somehow thought it was still a good idea to follow Karl Rove’s playbook, which says that you should never, ever admit to a mistake. And that playbook has led them into a political trap.