At a campaign stop in New Hampshire over the past weekend, a voter asked Hillary Clinton if she could say -- "once and for all, without nuance" -- that her October 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq had been a "mistake."
Clinton couldn't do it.
"Well," she said, "I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it ... I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged."
Let's go through that again. Clinton said that, knowing what she knows now, she wouldn't have voted to authorize the use of force. She said that George W. Bush made mistakes. But Clinton didn't say that she was wrong or that she made a mistake back in 2002.
Does it matter? It mattered to that voter in New Hampshire, who said that he wouldn't be able to hear "all these other great things" Clinton is saying until she says that she was wrong about Iraq.
It could matter to other antiwar voters who remember that 23 senators did manage to say no to the use-of-force resolution in 2002 and that several who said yes -- including John Kerry and John Edwards -- have since declared that their votes were mistakes.
And it could matter to a lot of Democrats in places like New Hampshire and Iowa, where voters will soon have to line up Clinton against Barack Obama and take the measure of both. According to a recent poll, 92 percent of New Hampshire's Democrats say the war in Iraq wasn't worth the cost; 86 percent of Iowa's Democrats feel the same way. Obama wasn't yet in the Senate when Clinton was voting for the use-of-force resolution, but he can point primary voters and caucusgoers to a speech he gave at an antiwar rally in October 2002, a speech in which he said that Saddam Hussein "poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors" and warned that "even a successful war against Iraq" would "require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."
As for Clinton? Her public statements since October 2002 reflect a slow, relatively steady evolution in her thinking -- or at least in her talking points. She has gone from 1) voting for the use-of-force resolution, to 2) questioning the intelligence that formed the basis of that vote, to 3) arguing that the Bush administration distorted the intelligence, to 4) saying she didn't regret giving Bush authority to use force but did regret the way he used that authority, to 5) saying the resolution never would have come to a vote if Congress knew then what it knows now, to 6) saying that Congress wouldn't have voted for the resolution if Congress knew then what it knows now, to 7) saying that she wouldn't have voted for the resolution if she knew then what she knows now.
That's a lot of small steps, but Clinton remains either unable or unwilling to take the final one: To say not just that she would have voted differently if she knew then what she knows now but that she should have voted differently based on what she knew then. Clinton has said many, many words in her evolution. "Mistake" -- at least when it come to describing her own vote -- still hasn't been one of them.
Here's a look at her journey so far.
October 2002: The Senate votes 77-23 in favor of a resolution authorizing President Bush to "use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq." In a speech on the Senate floor, Clinton explains why she is voting in favor of the resolution:
"Even though the resolution before the Senate is not as strong as I would like in requiring the diplomatic route first and placing highest priority on a simple, clear requirement for unlimited inspections, I will take the president at his word that he will try hard to pass a U.N. resolution and will seek to avoid war, if at all possible.
"Because bipartisan support for this resolution makes success in the United Nations more likely and, therefore, war less likely, and because a good-faith effort by the United States, even if it fails, will bring more allies and legitimacy to our cause, I have concluded, after careful and serious consideration, that a vote for the resolution best serves the security of our nation ...
"This is a very difficult vote. This is probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make ... but I cast it with conviction ...
I urge the president to spare no effort to secure a clear, unambiguous demand by the United Nations for unlimited inspections ... A vote for [the resolution] is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our president and we say to him: Use these powers wisely and as a last resort."
March 6, 2003: In a tense meeting with members of the peace group Code Pink, Clinton defends her vote on the use-of-force resolution by saying: "I ended up voting for the resolution after carefully reviewing the information and intelligence that I had available, talking with people whose opinions I trusted, trying to discount political or other factors that I didn't believe should be in any way a part of this decision. And it is unfortunate that we are at the point of a potential military action to enforce the resolution. That is not my preference. It would be far preferable if we not only had legitimate cooperation from Saddam Hussein and a willingness on his part to disarm and to account for his chemical and biological storehouses, but if we had a much broader alliance and coalition."
March 24, 2003: Days after the war begins, Clinton says during a press availability in Syracuse, N.Y.: "I've never been one of those that thought this was going to be done in 24-48 hours as some people had suggested ... We just have to stand united and make sure our men and women in uniform know that we're behind them."
June 2003: As Americans grow impatient with progress in Iraq and raise questions about the intelligence that led to war, NPR's Juan Williams asks Clinton in an interview: "Do you regret having voted to authorize the president to go to war against Iraq?"
Clinton responds: "I think that from my perspective, the vote I made, which was a very difficult vote, was based on my assessment of the evidence presented to me. In my mind, the jury is still out as to whether or not that evidence merited my vote or anyone else's ... But I knew from my husband's administration that he certainly received the same kind of intelligence reports -- that here was a man who was intent, obsessed with having weapons of mass destruction.
"So I'm not ready to say either that the intelligence was wrong or that the intelligence was selectively applied and skewed for a certain result. But I think it is essential that we get to the bottom of whether or not either of those were true ... I would not fault any president who is at the end of the food chain on intelligence, but there are certainly people further down in the government who are making decisions about what goes up that chain ... So we have to know: What is the intelligence? How accurate are our sources? And was there a political agenda at work?"
September 2003: At a breakfast with reporters Clinton accuses the Bush administration of a "shocking failure of leadership" on Iraq but insists that her vote to authorize the use of force was "merited" based on "what we knew and believed" about the Iraqi threat.
October and November 2003: The Senate votes to authorize $87 billion in supplemental funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- the supplemental funding John Kerry was famously for before he was against it. In a speech on the Senate floor, Clinton begins to answer what she previously described as questions about prewar intelligence and the administration's use of it.
"The idea of giving our president authority to act in the global war against terrorism, if necessary in his opinion, against Saddam Hussein, was one I could support and I did so. In the last year, however, I have been first perplexed, then surprised, then amazed, and even outraged and always frustrated by the implementation of the authority given the president by this Congress ...
"I think now it is clear that, for a combination of reasons, the administration gilded the lily, engaged in hyperbole, took whatever small nugget of intelligence that existed and blew it up into a mountain, in order, I suppose, to make the case more strongly and convincingly to the American people ...
"There were some ... who said: 'Wait a minute. We are heading off in the wrong direction. We are jumping on the wrong horse.'
"But for many of us, looking at the intelligence, being briefed continually about what the threats were, being told by the highest levels of our government in public and in private that we were facing an imminent threat, it certainly seemed like a bet on which nobody -- at least speaking for myself -- wished to be on the wrong side" of.
She responds: "No. I regret the way the president used the authority. I believe in presidential authority to deal with threats ... I have no second-guessing about giving the president authority ... What I do regret and what I think has been unfortunate is the way that that process was short-circuited and the military action was taken without any adequate understanding or planning about what the aftermath would be."
"I was one who supported giving President Bush the authority, if necessary, to use force against Saddam Hussein," she says. "I believe that that was the right vote. I have had many disputes and disagreements with the administration over how that authority has been used, but I stand by the vote to provide the authority because I think it was a necessary step in order to maximize the outcome that did occur in the Security Council with the unanimous vote to send in inspectors."
April 2004: Larry King asks Clinton whether she's "sorry" that she voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.
"No," she says. "I don't regret giving the president authority, because at the time it was in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade. What I regret is the way the president used the authority."
King asks Clinton if she's "frustrated" or "rethinking" her vote on the resolution.
"No," she says. "I believe strongly that after 9/11, we have to be prepared to take action to protect our country, to protect our friends and allies, American assets around the world ... Now that we're there, we're going to have to make the best of it. I think it could have been handled differently ... For the life of me, I don't understand how they had such an unrealistic view about what was going to happen."
Aug. 29, 2004: ABC's George Stephanopoulos asks Clinton: "If you knew then what you know now about how President Bush has used that authority, would you vote to give it to him again?"
"George," she says, "we wouldn't have had a vote. There is no way any president could have brought a vote to the United States Congress in the absence of good intelligence, with no credible plan. We wouldn't have had a vote."
Stephanopoulos asks Clinton if she made a mistake in voting for the resolution.
"Oh, I think based on the information that we had at the time, I don't regret giving the president authority, but as I've said many times, I regret the way he used that authority."
November 2005: John Edwards writes an Op-Ed piece for the Washington Post in which he says that, had he known that the information that he was being given by the intelligence community "wasn't the whole story," he "never would have voted for this war." But Edwards goes further than that. "I was wrong," he writes. "It was a mistake to vote for this war in 2002. I take responsibility for that mistake."
Two weeks later, Clinton sends a letter to her constituents in which she explains her own vote by building on the formulation she offered Stephanopoulos.
"I voted for [the resolution] on the basis of the evidence presented by the administration, assurances they gave that they would first seek to resolve the issue of weapons of mass destruction peacefully through United Nations sponsored inspections, and the argument that the resolution was needed because Saddam Hussein never did anything to comply with his obligations that he was not forced to do," Clinton writes. "Their assurances turned out to be empty ones, as the administration refused repeated requests from the UN inspectors to finish their work. And the 'evidence' of weapons of mass destruction and links to al-Qaida turned out to be false.
"Based on the information that we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the president authority to use force against Iraq. And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed, given the lack of a long-term plan, paltry international support, the proven absence of weapons of mass destruction, and the reallocation of troops and resources that might have been used in Afghanistan to eliminate Bin Laden and al-Qaida, and fully uproot the Taliban ...
"I take responsibility for my vote, and I, along with a majority of Americans, expect the president and his administration to take responsibility for the false assurances, faulty evidence and mismanagement of the war."
September 2006: ABC's Cynthia McFadden asks Clinton whether she regrets casting her vote in favor of the use-of-force authorization.
"Well," Clinton replies, "I can only look at what I knew at the time because I don't think you get do-overs in life. I think you have to take responsibility. And hopefully, learn from it and go forward. I regret very much the way the president used the authority he was given because I think he misled the Congress, and he misled the country."
McFadden tells Clinton that some of her supporters would like to hear her say, "I'm sorry I cast the vote. I'm sorry I enabled the president."
Clinton responds: "I understand that because certainly the feelings about Iraq are very raw and deep. And I share them. But I don't think that's responsible. And I've taken a lot of heat from my friends who have said, 'Please just, you know, throw in the towel and say let's get out by a date certain.' I don't think that's responsible, either. And it may be frustrating for some, but I don't think complicated situations in life or, frankly, in foreign policy and military affairs often lend themselves to answers that can be put into a sound bite."
December 2006: In an interview on the "Today" show after Democrats have retaken Congress on the strength of public disaffection with the war, Clinton goes beyond saying that Congress would have voted differently on the Iraq resolution if it had known then what it learned later; she says that she would have voted differently, too. "Obviously," she says, "if we knew then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote -- and I certainly wouldn't have voted that way."
Feb. 2, 2007: At the Democratic National Committee's winter meeting, Clinton says: "I want to be very clear about this: If I had been president in October 2002, I would not have started this war."
Feb. 9, 2007: In a telephone interview with New Hampshire's Union Leader newspaper, Clinton says that her vote was "based on the best assessment that I could make at the time, and it was clearly intended to demonstrate support for going to the United Nations to put inspectors into Iraq."
Feb. 10, 2007: Nashua, N.H., resident Roger Tilton tells Clinton: "I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all, without nuance, you can say that that war authorization vote was a mistake."
Clinton's response: "Well, I have said, and I will repeat it, that knowing what I know now, I would never have voted for it but I also -- and -- I mean, obviously you have to weigh everything as you make your decisions. I have taken responsibility for my vote. The mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged."
Additional reporting by Julia Dahl in Washington.