By Frank Rich
The New York Times
Hillary Clinton has an answer to those who suspect that her "I'm in to win" Webcast last weekend was forced by Barack Obama's Webcast of just four days earlier. "I wanted to do it before the president's State of the Union," she explained to Brian Williams on NBC, "because I wanted to draw the contrast between what we've seen over the last six years, and the kind of leadership and experience that I would bring to the office."
She couldn't have set the bar any lower. President Bush's speech was less compelling than the Monty Python sketch playing out behind it: the unacknowledged race between Nancy Pelosi and Dick Cheney to be the first to stand up for each bipartisan ovation. (Winner: Pelosi.)
As we've been much reminded, the most recent presidents to face Congress in such low estate were Harry Truman in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1974, both in the last ebbs of their administrations, both mired in unpopular wars that their successors would soon end, and both eager to change the subject just as Mr. Bush did. In his '52 State of the Union address, Truman vowed "to bring the cost of modern medical care within the reach of all the people" while Nixon, 22 years later, promised "a new system that makes high-quality health care available to every American." Not to be outdone, Mr. Bush offered a dead-on-arrival proposal that "all our citizens have affordable and available health care." The empty promise of a free intravenous lunch, it seems, is the last refuge of desperate war presidents.
Few Americans know more than Senator Clinton about health care, as it happens, and if 27 Americans hadn't been killed in Iraq last weekend, voters might be in the mood to listen to her about it. But polls continue to show Iraq dwarfing every other issue as the nation's No. 1 concern. The Democrats' pre-eminent presidential candidate can't escape the war any more than the president can. And so she was blindsided Tuesday night, just as Mr. Bush was, by an unexpected gate crasher, the rookie senator from Virginia, Jim Webb. Though he's not a candidate for national office, Mr. Webb's nine-minute Democratic response not only upstaged the president but also, in an unintended political drive-by shooting, gave Mrs. Clinton a more pointed State of the Union "contrast" than she had bargained for.
To the political consultants favored by both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Bush, Mr. Webb is an amateur. More than a few Washington insiders initially wrote him off in last year's race to unseat a star presidential prospect, the incumbent Senator George Allen. Mr. Webb is standoffish. He doesn't care whom he offends, including in his own base. He gives the impression - as he did Tuesday night - that he just might punch out his opponent. When he had his famously testy exchange with Mr. Bush over the war at a White House reception after his victory, Beltway pooh-bahs labeled him a boor, much as they had that other interloper who refused to censor himself before the president last year, Stephen Colbert.
But this country is at a grave crossroads. It craves leadership. When Mr. Webb spoke on Tuesday, he stepped into that vacuum and, for a few minutes anyway, filled it. It's not merely his military credentials as a Vietnam veteran and a former Navy secretary for Ronald Reagan that gave him authority, or the fact that his son, also a marine, is serving in Iraq. It was the simplicity and honesty of Mr. Webb's message. Like Senator Obama, he was a talented professional writer before entering politics, so he could discard whatever risk-averse speech his party handed him and write his own. His exquisitely calibrated threat of Democratic pushback should Mr. Bush fail to change course on the war - "If he does not, we will be showing him the way" - continued to charge the air even as Mrs. Clinton made the post-speech rounds on the networks.
Mrs. Clinton cannot rewrite her own history on Iraq to match Mr. Obama's early opposition to the war, or Mr. Webb's. She was not prescient enough to see, as Mr. Webb wrote in The Washington Post back in September 2002, that "unilateral wars designed to bring about regime change and a long-term occupation should be undertaken only when a nation's existence is clearly at stake." But she's hardly alone in this failing, and the point now is not that she mimic John Edwards with a prostrate apology for her vote to authorize the war. ("You don't get do-overs in life or in politics," she has said.) What matters to the country is what happens next. What matters is the leadership that will take us out of the fiasco.
Mr. Webb made his own proposals for ending the war, some of them anticipating those of the Iraq Study Group, while running against a popular incumbent in a reddish state. Mrs. Clinton, running for re-election in a safe seat in blue New York, settled for ratcheting up her old complaints about the war's execution and for endorsing other senators' calls for vaguely defined "phased redeployments." Even now, after the Nov. 7 results confirmed that two-thirds of voters nationwide want out, she struggles to parse formulations about Iraq.
This is how she explains her vote to authorize the war: "I would never have expected any president, if we knew then what we know now, to come to ask for a vote. There would not have been a vote, and I certainly would not have voted for it." John Kerry could not have said it worse himself. No wonder last weekend's "Saturday Night Live" gave us a "Hillary" who said, "Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."
Compounding this problem for Mrs. Clinton is that the theatrics of her fledgling campaign are already echoing the content: they are so overscripted and focus-group bland that they underline rather than combat the perennial criticism that she is a cautious triangulator too willing to trim convictions for political gain. Last week she conducted three online Web chats that she billed as opportunities for voters to see her "in an unfiltered way." Surely she was kidding. Everything was filtered, from the phony living-room set to the appearance of a "campaign blogger" who wasn't blogging to the softball questions and canned responses. Even the rare query touching on a nominally controversial topic, gay civil rights, avoided any mention of the word marriage, let alone Bill Clinton's enactment of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
When a 14-year-old boy from Armonk, N.Y., asked Mrs. Clinton what made her "so inspirational," it was a telltale flashback to those well-rehearsed "town-hall meetings" Mr. Bush billed as unfiltered exchanges with voters during the 2004 campaign. One of those "Ask President Bush" sessions yielded the memorable question, "Mr. President, as a child, how can I help you get votes?"
After six years of "Ask President Bush," "Mission Accomplished" and stage sets plastered with "Plan for Victory," Americans hunger for a presidency with some authenticity. Patently synthetic play-acting and carefully manicured sound bites like Mrs. Clinton's look out of touch. (Mr. Obama's bare-bones Webcast and Web site shrewdly play Google to Mrs. Clinton's AOL.) Besides, the belief that an image can be tightly controlled in the viral media era is pure fantasy. Just ask the former Virginia senator, Mr. Allen, whose past prowess as a disciplined, image-conscious politician proved worthless once the Webb campaign posted on YouTube a grainy but authentic video capturing him in an embarrassing off-script public moment.
The image that Mrs. Clinton wants to sell is summed up by her frequent invocation of the word middle, as in "I grew up in a middle-class family in the middle of America." She's not left or right, you see, but exactly in the center where everyone feels safe. But as the fierce war critic Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, argues in a must-read interview at gq.com, the war is "starting to redefine the political landscape" and scramble the old party labels. Like Mrs. Clinton, the middle-American Mr. Hagel voted to authorize the Iraq war, but that has not impeded his leadership in questioning it ever since.
The issue raised by the tragedy of Iraq is not who's on the left or the right, but who is in front and who is behind. Mrs. Clinton has always been a follower of public opinion on the war, not a leader. Now events are outrunning her. Support for the war both in the polls and among Republicans in Congress is plummeting faster than she can recalibrate her rhetoric; unreliable Iraqi troops are already proving no-shows in the new Iraqi-American "joint patrols" of Baghdad; the Congressional showdown over fresh appropriations for Iraq is just weeks away.
This, in other words, is a moment of crisis in our history and there will be no do-overs. Should Mrs. Clinton actually seek unfiltered exposure to voters, she will learn that
they are anxiously waiting to see just who in Washington is brave enough to act.