Pollsters and Puppets

Joel Bleifuss

For Sen. Hillary Clinton, Iowa and New Hampshire are chapters of a story that began at 10 G Street in Washington, D.C.

In October 2002, the Bush White House was preparing to march the country off to another war. In Congress, the Democrats, on the whole, dithered.

Should they or should they not support the president’s Iraq war resolutions? Should they follow the road map prepared by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Office of Special Plans, accept the rationale promoted by the Weekly Standard neocons and believe the evidence” supplied by the prevaricating Judith Miller of the New York Times?

To the rescue came Democracy Corps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people.” (Translation: Making unprincipled politicians more responsive to the dubious science of political pollsters.) The group’s founders included Clintonistas James Carville and Stan Greenberg, as well as Robert Shrum, who would infamously go on to mismanage Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 campaign. 

On Oct. 3, 2002, these number-crunchers warned Hill Democrats that their decision to support or oppose an Iraq war resolution would take place in a setting where voters, by 10 points, [preferred] to vote for a member who supports a resolution to authorize force (50 to 40 percent).” The message was clear: Don’t lead, follow the polls and support Bush’s war.

Imagine what this Democratic presidential primary would look like had Clinton not pandered to public opinion (as misinterpreted by Democracy Corps), and had instead spoken out against Bush’s warmongering. Imagine if Clinton, like then-state senator Barack Obama, had addressed antiwar rallies. 

While some pundits downplay the war’s role, it is clear Clinton’s hawkishness opened the door for opponents like the senator from Illinois. 

If Clinton – and Kerry and former Sen.John Edwards and the 26 other Democratic Senators who endorsed Bush’s war – had led rather than followed, the national media would have been forced to view the war as a Republican adventure (rather than a bipartisan crusade for democracy and against weapons of mass destruction). If there had been a meaningful opposition in Washington, rather than a clique of fearful, poll-driven opportunists, it is possible that this entire Iraq catastrophe could have been averted.

Fast forward five years. Bill Clinton in Hanover, N.H., describes Obama’s opposition to the war was the biggest fairytale I’ve ever seen.” Hillary Clinton portrays Obama as a waffler for claiming the antiwar mantle without moving actively to defund the war. Certainly, this Senate has failed to effectively challenge Bush’s Iraq policy, but every Democratic senator, Clinton included, shares responsibility for that failure.

Clinton claims that if she had better information in 2002 – had she but known! – she would not have voted to go to war. Is ignorance an excuse for a woman as smart as Clinton? Did Rep. Dennis Kucinich have access to the special intelligence? As Congress took up the war resolutions, the press was full of reports that the White House claim that you can’t distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam” was a crock of Bushit.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets. They didn’t need a degree from Yale Law School to understand that Clinton, et al. had voted to support a war that was being waged on false premises. In These Times and its sister publications had been reporting that fact for months – as had mainstream press outlets like the Knight Ridder newspapers. 

These days, the future looks brighter for the Democratic Party. But if the Dems are going to be agents of change,” the buzzword of the moment, they will need to exhibit real leadership rather than pander to opinion polls. 

For a limited time:

Donate $20 or more to In These Times and we'll send you a copy of Let This Radicalize You.

In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?

We've partnered with the publisher, Haymarket Books, and 100% of your donation will go towards supporting In These Times.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.