The press keeps spinning Hillary's Iraq vote

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The press insists Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq could doom her 2008 campaign. But a new, largely ignored, poll indicates Democrats don't much care about her vote. In fact, most Democrats don't even think the vote was a mistake. Reporters and pundits though, remain committed to the story.

The press insists Sen. Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq could doom her 2008 campaign. But a new, largely ignored, poll indicates Democrats don't much care about her vote. In fact, most Democrats don't even think the vote was a mistake. Reporters and pundits though, remain committed to the story.

For weeks the press has emphasized the haunting specter of Clinton's war vote and how out on the campaign trail angry voters have "grilled" Clinton (Chicago Tribune) and were "demanding" (Associated Press) that she apologize for her vote. The issue, we're told, had become a "throbbing toothache" (The Washington Post) that "poses political peril" and "is now perhaps Mrs. Clinton's biggest political challenge (New York Times.) Indeed, Slate's William Saletan announced that Clinton had taken "an amazingly stupid and arrogant position" that would "probably kill her candidacy."

Despite the press' overheated rhetoric, the Iraq-vote story always struck me as too inside baseball -- too procedural -- to actually strike a nerve with millions of voters. I realize that some Democrats, and particularly activists, feel strongly about the issue and they have every right to confront the candidate and hold her responsible. But was the issue really dominating the campaign? Since when do primary-state voters select presidential candidates based on a Senate vote cast five years earlier? It would be one thing if Clinton still supported the war. Then I'm sure she would be dogged at campaign stops, even routinely heckled, much the way Vice President Hubert Humphrey was during his doomed 1968 campaign when he refused to denounce the Vietnam War.

But was Clinton's long-ago war vote really front-and-center for voters?

Now we know the answer. Or at least we have some polling data to conclude that, yes, reporters and pundits have dramatically exaggerated the importance of the Iraq vote issue. Last week's ABC News poll was the first that I've seen that asked Democratic voters specifically about Clinton's vote, whether it was right or wrong, and whether she should apologize for it.

What's startling is that a majority of Democrats -- 52 percent -- don't even think Clinton's vote to authorize the war was a mistake. Of those who do think it was wrong, just three-in-ten think she should apologize. According to ABC, 14 percent of Democrats overall want Clinton to renounce her vote. My hunch is that if you added into that mix independent voters, who can cast ballots in key states such as New Hampshire, the final tally would be closer to 8 or 9 percent who think Clinton should apologize. Yet that's the issue driving the campaign coverage? (Of course, if you added in Republican voters for a hypothetical general election, the percentage of total voters who think Clinton should apologize would shrink to perhaps 3 or 4 percent.)

Suddenly, in light of the polling data, the Iraq-vote story seems somewhat manufactured and oversold by journalists, which may be one reason not one news organization picked up on ABC's 14 percent finding. (ABC itself buried the nugget in the 19th paragraph of its own article posted online about the polling data.) The inconvenient fact was simply ignored.

I suspect journalists are married to the Clinton Iraq-vote story because the tale fits in nicely with their preferred narrative about the candidate, that she's cold, overcalculating, and insincere. There seems to be little evidence, though, to support the press' contention that the voter-generated issue is dominating the campaign.

Read this telling AP dispatch from New Hampshire to get a sense of whether the 5-year-old Iraq vote in the Senate remains top-of-mind among voters:

[John] Edwards' visit to New Hampshire was billed as a series of house meetings to promote his health care plan and his presidential bid. But less than five minutes after walking into the day's first house party, the 2004 vice presidential nominee turned to the subject that has consumed the Democratic contenders: Iraq.

"Honestly, if you don't bring up Iraq, I'll bring it up," the former North Carolina senator told about 150 people gathered in a state senator's living room and kitchen.

And when the first few questions dealt with other issues -- homelessness, catastrophic health insurance, the federal budget -- Edwards again suggested someone might want to ask him about Iraq.

Later that day while at another event, the AP reported, "Not one of the nine questions he faced later at a house party in Concord involved Iraq." Nobody was asking Edwards about his Iraq vote, so he had to do it himself.

(I'm not a political prognosticator, but doesn't anyone else think that Edwards' decision to become a serial apologizer for his Iraq vote might, in the end, hurt him more than help him? In the latest ABC poll, Edwards suffered a 13-point jump in his unfavorable rating, right after he began stressing regret for his Iraq vote. And FYI, Clinton's overall support fell five points in the ABC poll, but its polling director attributed that slide "entirely" to a shift among African-American voters excited by the unfolding news of Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy.)

The media create deliberate confusion

Of course, as the Daily Howler has noted, it doesn't help that many in the press corps seem to go out of their way to mislead news consumers about Clinton's vote and what she's been saying about it. Time's Ana Marie Cox wrote that she was baffled by Clinton's " 'never apologize, never explain' approach to her Iraq vote" [emphasis added]. Never explain? Isn't this whole issue a news story precisely because Clinton often explains -- although not apologizes for--her war vote? I've never heard of an instance where Clinton refused to explain her vote.

Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz said Clinton was telling voters, "I don't regret the vote," a description that was categorically false.

In The Washington Post, columnist Ruth Marcus, reporting from New Hampshire, announced that "Democratic primary voters don't want" the "Kerryesque parsing" about Iraq that they are getting from Clinton. Marcus insisted Clinton was facing "a ferociously antiwar electorate unhappy with her positions, past and present, on Iraq."

Of course, at the time Marcus wrote that, Clinton was ahead in all the New Hampshire polls, which raised doubts about the columnist's conclusion about what Democratic voters do and "don't want" and how "unhappy" they were with Clinton.

Fellow Post columnist Eugene Robinson recently echoed Marcus' point, insisting Clinton was in real trouble because Democratic voters "expect abject contrition from candidates who voted to authorize" the war. Yet the latest polling indicates it's a distinct minority of Democratic voters who expect contrition.

Here's an interesting tidbit. Days before Marcus and Robinson penned their columns, CNN released a poll of likely New Hampshire primary voters. It showed Clinton was "viewed least favorably by voters who support the war in Iraq" [emphasis added]. Contrary to the tale the press was telling, the deepest anger towards Clinton was coming from the right, not the anti-war left.

Meanwhile, MSNBC's Chris Matthews has told viewers it was hard to tell if Clinton today supports or opposes the war, which would be true if viewers simply discounted everything Clinton has said publicly about the war for the last three months. Then again, the press has become expert at ignoring what Clinton actually says about the war. For instance, on February 7, Clinton took to the U.S. Senate floor where she delivered a 30-plus minute address about Iraq and detailed her criticism of the White House's handling of the war and her thoughts on the best way to proceed. The following day, Clinton's extended remarks were virtually ignored by the mainstream press, despite the fact the same press corps insists Clinton's stance on the war will determine her success in the primaries.

But wait -- haven't primary-state voters confronted Clinton about her vote, and doesn't that make it news? After all, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert insisted voters in New Hampshire were "giving Senator Hillary Clinton a hard time" about her Iraq vote.

Indeed, reading the media accounts, news consumers were certainly left with the impression that Clinton was being hounded at every stop by angry voters. Yet if you read the accounts carefully and peeled away the media rhetoric, it became clear the actual number of confrontations were quite small.

On January 28, National Public Radio's Weekend Edition reported that while campaigning, Clinton faced "tough questions, mostly about her vote on Iraq." (Note the use of the plural for "questions.") Yet in its four-minute report, NPR referenced only a single tough question.

Following a February 10 event in Berlin, New Hampshire, The Washington Post reported Clinton "faced tough questions over her 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq." But the Post referenced only a single tough question posed to Clinton.

That same day, The New York Times reported Clinton faced "criticism at two appearances" in New Hampshire over her vote, yet the paper detailed only one.

That weekend, Meet the Press' Tim Russert said it "was quite striking how many times [Clinton] was asked about her position on the war." Yet Meet the Press referenced only a single question posed to Clinton about her position on the war.

Do you see a pattern here?

Using loaded language, The New York Times' Patrick Healy, who has written incessantly about the topic, reported that Clinton "even refused one man's request" that she apologize for her vote. "Even refused"? Isn't that simply called disagreeing?

And isn't it odd that journalists often whine about campaigns being overly scripted, but when a candidate like Clinton allows for hours of unscripted moments, the press pounces, suggesting a handful of questions that are not adoring pose a major problem for the candidate? Clinton herself welcomed the frank back-and-forth, as she noted on the campaign trail, "I want people to have a chance to ask me questions, and I want to, you know, talk about my views and positions. That's part of how voters make up their minds." The random questions about Iraq, though, sent the press into a tizzy.

Truth is, the press has had to stretch and strain in order to knit tighter this storyline about angry voters ganging on up Hillary. Journalists stretched so hard that at times the threads were showing.

For instance, one retired nurse, Claire Helfman, got lots of media ink when she stood up in at a Nashua, N.H., event and told Clinton her position on the Iraq vote "doesn't fly." The Boston Globe, The New York Times, the New York Daily News, and the AP all used the quote to bolster their Clinton's-in-trouble narrative. But as the Concord Monitor (New Hampshire) pointed out, all those news outlets yanked Helfman's comment out of context in order to make her "doesn't fly" comment seem more damning than it actually was. What Helfman went on to say was that if Clinton could say that she would have voted against the war in 2002 if she knew then what she knows now, "then I can support you." Of course, that's precisely the explanation Clinton has given on the campaign trail.

Then there was New Hampshire voter Paul LeBlanc who was quoted by the AP as saying, "Many people want to hear [Clinton] clearly say that her vote was a mistake." Damning, right? But the Boston Globe interviewed the same Paul LeBlanc at the same campaign event: "After hearing Clinton take questions on education, the war, and healthcare, LeBlanc said he agreed with her." [Emphasis added.]

The press has dressed up this Clinton Iraq-vote issue within an inch of its life, all the while insisting that it's the voters who are angry and annoyed at Clinton and her calculating ways. Now, thanks to polling, we know that's not entirely true. It's time for the press to stop telling us what it thinks is important, and start reporting what voters think is important.

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