Their Vote Counts

We all know of circumstances in life when apologies don't really count for much. A shattering lie, a gross infidelity, an act of obvious immorality -- these things, among friends and lovers, are at best partially salved by an "I'm sorry," even a heartfelt one. The real healing requires time, usually lots of it, a capacious empathy on the part of the aggrieved party, and maybe roses or poetry.

Yet in politics, an apology is somehow supposed to be worth more. I suppose this is chiefly because our expectations of politicians are far lower than our expectations of our dear ones. It also has to do with the way the media need to fit things into clean categories -- he did it; now he's sorry he did it; okay then, next issue. But whatever the reason, when a politician utters the magic words, it usually carries more weight than, in my estimation, it deserves.

And so here we have two of the three leading Democratic contenders providing stark contrasts in the art. Hillary Clinton will not apologize for her vote for the Iraq war, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere. John Edwards, for reasons that are more obvious (as he positions himself in the comfort zone of Democratic primary voters and caucus goers), has uttered the magic words.

Readers, and voters, will decide for themselves who's being more honest. For my part, I've decided: Neither is, and if only for the sake of remembering things accurately, we should look back at the infamous October 2002 vote in some detail and tell the plain truth about why most Senate Democrats voted to authorize war. It's one of the most important and fateful votes Congress has cast in recent American history, and it's very much worth remembering.

Exactly 29 Senate Democrats voted yea on H.J. Res 114, the "joint resolution to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq" (precious little ambiguity in that title, don't you think?). Now, let's engage in a little educated guesswork. Of the 29, how many do we think were absolutely sincere in supporting the war?

We have several categories of voters to deal with here. Let's start with the easy ones, the ones who, whatever you might think about it, clearly voted their conscience. Joe Lieberman. Dianne Feinstein -- she's an Israel hawk with a pretty long centrist-to-conservative foreign policy record. Zell Miller, without a doubt.

Category 2 consists of a number of red-state Democrats, some still in the Senate and some now out, whose foreign-policy records I confess I know less well and who obviously and understandably faced intense home-state pressure to vote yea. This list is long, but to name a few: the Nelsons of Florida and Nebraska respectively, Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu, John Breaux, Blanche Lincoln, Max Cleland.

My third category includes some other authority-granting red-staters whose records I do know a little better, and the knowledge I have suggests to me that in their heart of hearts, they knew they were casting a very bad vote: Jay Rockefeller, Tom Daschle, Harry Reid, Fritz Hollings, Byron Dorgan, Jean Carnahan. I suspect that someday, in their memoirs, many in this category will admit that the vote was the worst they ever cast. But again, one cuts a small break to red-staters.

Fourth, we have the remaining yea-voting blue-staters, beyond Lieberman and Feinstein. Let's limit this category to those who were not running for president, which is its own category. Of these, which ones voted their convictions? Bob Torricelli? Chuck Schumer? Maria Cantwell? Tom Harkin? Chris Dodd? This category, of course, includes Hillary Clinton. And the senators in this category deserve special obloquy. Some are less liberal than others, but I don't believe for a second that any of them thought that handing George W. Bush the authority to launch a preemptive war was in any conceivable way a good idea. And many represent states where political blowback wasn't a remote possibility. Al Gore won 60 percent of the vote in New York in 2000, and 56 percent of the vote in Connecticut that year. There's no way Schumer, Clinton, and Dodd can plausibly argue that in-state political pressure was too great to fight.

Categories 5 and 6 are straightforward: Let's call 5 the blue-staters who voted no -- Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Ron Wyden, Paul Wellstone (Wellstone's vote was gutsier than the others' -- he was up for reelection the next month in a barely-blue state).

Category 6 consists of the few and the proud, three lonely and brave men, the red-staters who voted no: Robert Byrd, Bob Graham, and Kent Conrad. Hat tip to you, gentlemen, in a big way.

And finally, our seventh category, the remaining 2004 candidates, which consists of two men, John Edwards and John Kerry, both of whom voted yea. In partial defense of Edwards, we should note his red-state provenance.

Conclusion? I'd bet that of the 29, no more than eight or nine really, truly thought invading Iraq was a grand idea. That leaves around 20 by my estimation who were engaged in some combining of succumbing to political pressure or keeping their career options open.

There is a difference, of course, between those two states of being. The former is more defensible than the latter -- I can't honestly say, if I were the junior senator from my home state, that I'd have had the cojones to vote no. As for the ones who were keeping their options open -- Clinton, Edwards, Kerry, Joe Biden, and perhaps even Dodd, who, it seems, may have been mulling his current run back then -- well, their yea votes were clearly the least defensible of the lot.

I don't buy Clinton's rationalization of her vote, which Richard Cohen demolished last week. But I don't go for Edwards' story either, all that blather about the faulty intelligence and how was he to know. Nonsense. The WMD argument was just one of several lies the administration was peddling at the time. Anyone with the eyes to see and the nose to smell knew that an invasion of Iraq was the longstanding intention of the people who filled key White House, Defense Department, and State Department posts in the administration, and that once 9-11 happened, they were handed a forgiving rationale. It was obvious from about December 2001 that Iraq was the end, and war was the preferred means.

Does it matter that Edwards apologized? A little, sure. But he and Clinton and 27 of their colleagues each own their little piece of the blame for what's happened here, and the bottom line is that they were scared out of their socks to do anything but vote yes. So let's move forward, but let's never forget that.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's editor-at-large. He writes a column most Wednesdays for TAP Online.

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