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Has Hillary Let Obama Back Into The Race?

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Ben Smith highlights the back-and-forth today between the Obama and Clinton camps over an Obama op-ed in the Manchester Union-Leader. First, the key grafs in the Obama piece, which focuses mostly on that Lieberman-Kyl Iran amendment:

I strongly differ with Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was the only Democratic presidential candidate to support this reckless amendment. We do need to tighten sanctions on the Iranian regime, particularly on Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which sponsors terrorism far beyond Iran's borders. But this must be done separately from any unnecessary saber-rattling about checking Iranian influence with our "military presence in Iraq." Above all, it must be done through tough and direct diplomacy with Iran, which I have supported, and which Sen. Clinton has called "naive and irresponsible."
Sen. Clinton says she was merely voting for more diplomacy, not war with Iran. If this has a familiar ring, it should. Five years after the original vote for war in Iraq, Sen. Clinton has argued that her vote was not for war -- it was for diplomacy, or inspections. But all of us knew what the Senate was debating in 2002. John Edwards has renounced his own vote for the war, and he should be applauded for his candor. After all, we didn't need to authorize a war in order to have United Nations weapons inspections. No one thought Congress was debating diplomacy. No newspaper headlines ran on Oct. 12, 2002, reading, "Congress authorizes diplomacy." This was a vote to authorize war, and without that vote, there would have been no war.

Now, via Ben, the response from Clinton spokesperson Phil Singer:

It's unfortunate that Sen. Obama is abandoning the politics of hope and embracing the same old attack politics as his support stagnates. Sen. Obama is well aware that Sen. Clinton was one of the first to say George Bush must get explicit congressional authority before attacking Iran and is the sole co-sponsor of legislation forbidding the president from expending any money on military action there without Congressional approval. Sen. Obama's attacks won't bring change, but Sen. Clinton's strength and experience will.

Two quick thoughts: First, the Clinton campaign has been very successful at convincing the media that Obama faces a Catch-22: He can't attack because it undercuts his message of hope and unity. And he can't not attack because, if he does, well, he loses. You obviously see Singer trying to set up the first part of that. (The media normally handles the second part on its own.)

I think this is a pretty bogus argument. There's a huge difference between attacking someone--which implies a certain level of viciousness or gratuitousness--and laying out key substantive differences between you and your opponent. The latter is perfectly fair and perfectly consistent with running a hopeful campaign. It would be irresponsible not to highlight differences. To the extent that the Obama team might have felt hamstrung by this narrative line--well, they shouldn't. It's really more of a Jedi mind trick than anything else.

The second thought is that the Clinton vote on the Iran amendment may turn out to be a much bigger mistake than people have suggested. Here's why: The reason Obama's more explicit attempts to differentiate himself on the war have fallen flat so far isn't that they stepped on his hopeful message (see point one), but because they were too backward-looking. You'd think to yourself: Fine, fine, you exercised good judgment on this one thing five years ago. But that was the past. We all see the light now.

But the Iran vote allows Obama to cast Clinton's judgment as an ongoing problem, and to illustrate how his judgment continues to be sound (though this would have been easier to illustrate had he actually shown up in the Senate to vote against the amendment). As Obama puts it in the last line of the Union-Leader op-ed: "This is not a debate about 2002; it's about the future, and in that debate I can run on, and not from, my record."

I don't think Obama would stand a chance without being able to pivot like this from 2002 to today. With that ability, the race gets much more interesting. It's a pretty big unforced error on the part of the Clinton campaign.

Update: Obama spokesperson Bill Burton e-mails Ben to assert that team Obama will not, in fact, be succumbing to those Jedi mind tricks:

Whatever happened to the politics of "let's chat" and "let's have a conversation?" Obviously, they find it irritating to answer tough questions on important issues like Iran but voters deserve to know that Obama simply disagreed with Clinton's support for the war in Iraq in 2002 and disagrees with her on Iran, right now.

Update II: See this item for some details that complicate Obama's argument.

--Noam Scheiber

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