Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Better Question for Hillary (and other candidates)

Everyone, it seems, wants to press Hillary about her vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002. She's been asked to call it a mistake. She's been asked to apologize. She refuses. The New York Times reports that "the level of Democratic anger has surprised some of her allies and advisers" -- and presumably Clinton herself.

For some this has turned into a huge issue, but another large group of voters don't get what the fuss is about: 2002 was five years ago. A lot has happened since then. Isn't it more important that she's against the war now? That she has pledged to end it if it is still going when she takes office in 2009?

I've been wondering if the "mistake" question is actually standing in for something else, something we should be asking not just Hillary, but all the Democratic candidates. And I think I know what that question is: Where have you been?

The question needs some unpacking. The Iraq War is only one of a large number of outrageous things our government has done these last six years. Legal residents of the United States no longer have habeas corpus rights. American citizens have been imprisoned for years without charges or trials. We've seen warrantless wiretapping, tearing down the wall between church and state, torture, political appointees censoring government scientists, rendition to countries that inflict even more extreme forms of torture, and the denial that the Guantanamo detainees have any enforceable human rights at all. The list could go on.

In each case, the administration has tried to stampede public opinion into supporting its position. If you disagreed, you were disloyal, un-American. You should be punished. Think: Dixie Chicks. Recall the judgmental microscope Cindy Sheehan has lived under. Listen to the things they're saying about John Murtha now. Even something as simple as the "Peace is Patriotic" bumper sticker on my car caused someone to put an intimidating note under my windshield wiper. You probably have your own story.

A lot of us, in our own little ways, tried to stand up to the stampede. We kept our bumper stickers. We blogged. We wrote letters to the editor. We went to candlelight vigils. Or maybe we just refused to agree when our friends and co-workers said the president was a hero and his opponents were traitors.

It was hard. But the most frustrating, disheartening part of the process was that the high-profile Democrats refused to lead us. Not in 2002 or 2003. In 2004, John Kerry was still trying to have it both ways. The Democrats who did stand up to the stampede were almost all second-stringers, people the general public hadn't heard of before: Russ Feingold, John Murtha. And Al Gore, the lone exception, who became a lot more courageous after he left active politics.

It wasn't until late 2005 that the big-name Democrats finally decided it was safe to come out. Almost against its will, the party ran against the war in 2006. The people led the so-called leaders, and the party won. Now all the Democratic presidential candidates are against the war, though they're still not sure they want to be responsible for ending it. Now they're all talking about civil liberties and human rights and international law. And I'm happy to hear it.

But where have you been?

I'm sorry, that's a rhetorical question, not a real one. I know where you've been. You've been hiding under your desks. We all know where you've been, because we've been dragging you behind us.

So here's the real question, the one I think we should be asking all the candidates, not just Hillary: Can you tell me a true story about your leadership and your courage? Can you tell of a time and an issue where you were out in front of the people? Worrying about something we didn't know enough to worry about? Standing up for something the rest of us still didn't realize needed defending?

I'm thinking of Al Gore and global warming. I'm thinking of Russ Feingold losing the Patriot Act vote 98-1.

Tell me a story like that, a true one, and I'll vote for you.


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