Most of us know now that Hillary Clinton has lost the Democratic presidential nomination race. But, she really lost the race before she officially entered the presidential race, because of one issue, and one issue only: Iraq.
Sen. Clinton, and her supporters, gave Barack Obama the political opening to enter the race not just by her vote to authorize the war but her refusal to stand before her constituents when she ran for re-election in 2006, explain her vote and admit she had committed a grave error. A significant portion of Obama's support has come from people vehemently opposed to the war.
Rather than take a moral stand, Sen. Clinton listened to her political operatives whose only calculus was winning, not morality. Of the many great strategic and tactical errors her campaign made (and one hopes a positive outcome of this race is the diminished roles of Mark Penn and Howard Wolfson in shaping the Democratic Party) the greatest one was believing that a vote for the Iraq war would be a strength. Stop and think of that for a moment: to win a political office, she was willing to live with the specter of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and a huge financial cost to our country, which, by one estimate, will be three trillion dollars.
Looking back, I gave her an opening to repair her image with the anti-war base. In the Fall of 2005, I entered the New York Democratic Senate primary to challenge Sen. Clinton's immoral support for the Iraq War. I had no expectations of winning. Rather, I, and the many people whose voices our campaign represented, wanted a debate about the war.
We tried to engage Sen. Clinton about her vote. At virtually every turn, she refused to have an open debate. At the New York State Democratic Party convention, I sought to have my name placed in nomination to force a debate about the war. Sen. Clinton's staff, and her supporters, threatened delegates who were considering signing my nomination petition. Rep. Jerrold Nadler led the effort, pressuring anti-war delegates who wanted to openly criticize Sen. Clinton's vote; I witnessed with my own eyes Nadler corralling one of my delegate supporters, trying to get her to remove her name from the petition (she refused). Other delegates, who were furious about the war, were scared away from our campaign by the prospect that they would lose access to Sen. Clinton, or other goodies that come with being part of the machine.
Over the summer of 2006, we played a somewhat comical game over whether Sen. Clinton would agree to debate me. I issued a very polite letter to her, asking for debates. Her campaign never responded. The press repeatedly asked her, and her campaign operatives, whether she would agree to a debate. The typical response was roughly: "We'll see how the campaign develops". That was also their answer on Election Day as people were going to the polls. And, yes, many of us have found her new-found demands for more debates with Obama...er...amusing.
Here are the lessons I draw from 2006. Had Sen. Clinton used her Senate re-election race in 2006 to admit her vote was wrong, she would be preparing to accept the Democratic nomination for president. Sen. Clinton's supporters failed her. People like Nadler and others, more concerned with their political futures and having no backbone to confront a then-feared political machine, refused to demand that she admit her vote for the war was a mistake. By falling into line with the machine, they allowed her to slide by in 2006 -- and they bear some responsibility for her failure in the 2008 presidential race.
But, forget political careers. The real tragedy is this: because of her national profile and, even back when the war was being debated, her seemingly clear path to victory in the 2008 primaries, Sen. Clinton could have been a national voice against the war. With her power, celebrity and influence, she could have prevented the deaths of a million Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, not to mention an unconscionable amount of money. Measured against the war's devastation, her loss in this election pales by comparison.