Toward the end of his brief news conference Thursday about entering the presidential race as a Democrat, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took a question from NBC News about where he differed with Hillary Clinton. Sanders, who served in the House throughout Bill Clinton's presidency and the Senate for the last two years of Hillary's term there, has usually been loathe to attack her. This time, Sanders cautioned that "we don't know" all of the Democratic frontrunner's stands (an attack in itself) and noted that he had broken with her on the Iraq War.
“I voted against the war in Iraq—and not only did I vote against it, I helped lead the effort,” said Sanders. “Many of the things that I said back then turned out to be true—the massive destabilization of the region.”
Sanders went on to emphasize that he opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline, both issues on which Hillary Clinton had been highly involved, then slippery about committing to. But the quick reference to the Iraq War stood out. It's now the common thread connecting both of Clinton's declared primary challengers. Earlier this month, former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee*, who provided a lonely Republican vote against the War, told the Washington Post that Clinton had gotten it wrong. (Chafee said on CNN earlier this month he was running, before a spokesperson walked it back and said he was still in the exploratory phase.)
“I don't think anybody should be president of the United States that made that mistake,” Chafee said. “It's a huge mistake and we live with broad, broad ramifications today—of instability not only in the Middle East but far beyond and the loss of American credibility. There were no weapons of mass destruction.”
The Iraq War was an essential reason why Clinton failed to break away from her 2008 challengers, and why she ended up losing Iowa's caucuses to both Barack Obama and John Edwards. The critics of the war, demeaned and mocked as sufferers of “Bush derangement syndrome,” or residents of “dream palaces,” watched the war prove them right.
Yet the war has played almost no role in the current left opposition to Clinton. The grassroots group that became identified with opposition to the war, MoveOn, has been plugging resources in a campaign to draft Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race. Warren, a Harvard professor in 2002, had not taken any position on the war, and has taken as few foreign policy stands as she can get away with. On Thursday, MoveOn executive director Anna Galland sent around a short statement welcoming Sanders to the race, saying that “he's stood up to the Wall Street banks and wealthy interests who have rigged the game in Washington and knee-capped our country’s middle-class and working families.” There was no mention of foreign policy whatsoever. (The e-mail ended with a new call for Warren to run.)
Clinton's 2002 explanation for her Iraq War vote remains excruciating for progressives. Sander's 2002 floor speech against the war does not. Like he says, he worried that a war would destabilize the region and blow up the national debt.
“An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorism campaign we have undertaken,” said Sanders, quoting Brent Scowcroft.
Since the start of the war, Democrats have nominated only two candidates for president. The first, John Kerry, voted for the war. The second, Barack Obama, opposed it from outside Washington. The war is not a deal-breaker for primary voters, but until Clinton got primary challengers, there was a real risk that the only critics of the Iraq adventure would be running for the Republican nomination. Just this week, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul reiterated in a conversation with New York Jewish leaders that “the removal of Saddam Hussein was a mistake.”
That's only a small piece of Paul's case against Clinton. Sanders and Chafee have fronted Iraq in their rationales for running. If former Virginia Senator Jim Webb joins the race, he'll likely make the same critique. He was coaxed into the 2006 race by progressives who had circulated his 2002 op-ed in the Washington Post, warning that "wars often have unintended consequences—ask the Germans, who in World War I were convinced that they would defeat the French in exactly 42 days.” Yet like Sanders and Chafee, he's enjoyed only single-digit (if that) support from Democratic primary voters.
"I think that I have a long history in terms I think of pretty accurate predictions, whether it was the Iraq War or issues like the Shitang Islands in the South China Sea," Webb told reporters today. "What we've said over many years, it gives people a comfort zone in terms of what they would see in presidential leadership."
Webb spent Thursday morning literally across the Washington mall from the site of Sanders's speech. He was speaking about the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
*Side note: Sanders, an independent, is remaining so while filing for Democratic primaries, spokesman Vince Morris said. Chafee was elected as a Republican for Senate and an independent for governor, and only recently switched parties. Clinton famously was a young Republican, a Goldwater Girl, before her political evolution in the late 1960s. No one currently running for the Democratic nomination has always been a Democrat. That would remain true if Webb, a veteran of Ronald Reagan's cabinet, entered the race.
Ben Brody contributed to this story.