Is Chafee a Big Problem for HRC?

I seem to be fated this Friday afternoon to quibbling with writers that I admire greatly and with whom I usually agree. Earlier it was Brian Beutler. Now it’s Peter Beinart, who in a column for the Atlantic suggests that Lincoln Chafee’s candidacy, focused as it will apparently be on Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq War, could cause HRC big problems.

His argument is a bit involved:

Every Republican presidential candidate except Rand Paul is telling the same story: By 2008, as a result of George W. Bush’s surge, America had won the Iraq War. But then Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by recklessly withdrawing US troops. Since then, the Middle East has descended into the depths of hell, and become a petri dish breeding ISIS barbarians eager to strike the United States.

The best answer to this line of attack is the one Hillary can’t give: that America should never have invaded Iraq in the first place. After all, it wouldn’t have been necessary to stitch the Iraqi state back together between 2006 and 2008, at a vast cost in money and blood, had the United States not shattered it in the first place. But Hillary can’t give that answer because she voted to authorize the war.

That’s where the Missing Linc comes in:

He was the only Republican senator who voted against authorizing war. Now, as a Democratic candidate for president, he will talk about the collapse of Iraq and the rise of ISIS in a way she can’t. And the way Hillary responds to him will preview her response to the Republicans next fall.

Finding a good answer won’t be easy.

I don’t know why that’s the case. She can say, as she’s said before, that she was lied into her vote for the war by the administration’s claims of WMD. She can also say she voted for toppling Saddam Hussein, not for a huge, insanely expensive (in dollars and lives), and basically incompetent five-year occupation of Iraq run by civilian ideologues in cahoots with contractors and mercenaries, led by an administration with no coherent strategy for wrapping it all up. Why should we think people might buy it? Because that’s basically the trajectory of public opinion–intially in favor of the war, we should remember–on Iraq.

Beyond that, of course, it’s questionable that Linc Chafee’s going to be in a position to stalk HRC around the campaign trail, haunting her like Banquo’s ghost with the unanswerable accusation. Anyone who really holds the Iraq vote against her is going to support one of her more viable opponents, such as, say, Bernie Sanders, who also voted against the war authorization. It’s not a given that Chafee will be allowed to participate in Democratic debates, which are likely to have a public opinion support threshold to keep the tinfoil hat and vanity candidates out. And even if he does get on the stage, once HRC has answered the question a couple of times, moderators and viewers alike may get impatient with its repetition.

I understand Beinart’s line of reasoning, but in my opinion the people who really need to be worried about Iraq War history are the 16 or 17 GOP candidates who opposed the wildly popular decision by Obama to withdraw ground troops from Iraq and appear to be in favor of a re-invasion, without any pretence of WMDs and no better exit strategy than Donald Rumsfeld’s.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.