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Mar 17, 2008 11:27 am

The Subcommittee

This morning, the Clinton campaign released a memorandum that Time’s Mark Halperin described as “question[ing] Obama’s national security credentials.” Among the allegations: the previously-stated claim that “when [Obama] took over the subcommittee that oversees NATO and Afghanistan and had a chance to follow up on the part of his 2002 speech that argued that Iraq diverted attention from Afghanistan, he failed to hold a single hearing.”

It’s worth reiterating: the Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on European Affairs doesn’t have primary jurisdiction over the campaign in Afghanistan. The Armed Services Committee (on which Senator Clinton serves) does.

The Subcommittee on European Affairs doesn’t have secondary jurisdiction over the campaign in Afghanistan. The full Foreign Relations Committee (which has held hearings on Afghanistan) does.

The Subcommittee on European Affairs doesn’t even have tertiary jurisdiction over the campaign in Afghanistan. The Subcommittee on Near East and South and Central Asian Affairs does.

Both Clintons, obviously, fully understand how the Senate operates; and recognize that any freshman senator who hopes to have any influence in the upper chamber isn’t going to hold hearings on a matter almost wholly tangential to his subcommittee’s jurisdiction.

For a minute, though, assume the Clinton campaign wasn’t aware of so basic an issue as committee and subcommittee jurisdiction, and that they really believed that the Senate addressed Afghanistan policy through the Subcommittee on European Affairs. Even then, the Clinton memo would mislead.

What, exactly, would hearings about Afghanistan by the Subcommittee on European Affairs have accomplished? NATO support for the Afghanistan campaign has remained fairly strong; whatever drop-off that’s occurred has resulted from European opposition to the Bush policy in Iraq. (The Clinton campaign doesn’t contend that the Subcommittee on European Affairs had jurisdiction over Iraq.) Obama could have held a subcommittee hearing every day of 2007 without being able to address that problem.

Moreover, if we have learned nothing else from this administration, it’s that—for better or worse—Bush officials are impervious to pressure from congressional oversight. Obama could have held a subcommittee hearing every day of 2007 without being able to address that problem.

A case could be made that a senator like Obama—a freshman without any key committee chairmanships, but with celebrity status from his 2004 convention address—could have done more on Iraq and Afghanistan policy during his time in the Senate. How? By speaking more on the issue, with the hope both of shaping public opinion and of attracting more media attention to the administration’s shortcomings. Senate dissenters used this tactic throughout the Cold War, even when dealing with Presidents less power-hungry than Bush.

The Clinton memo, of course, doesn’t make that case against Obama—first, because the campaign has denigrated the significance of speeches; and second, because doing so would raise the question of why Clinton didn’t use her celebrity status to speak out more effectively against the administration’s Middle Eastern policy. People of good faith, of course, could and did disagree on the wisdom of the Iraq war. But in the speech explaining her support for the war authorization, Clinton went out of her way to cite her experience as a rationale for her vote. Given that she’s based her campaign on an argument that her experience would guide her approach to the presidency, perhaps the 2002 address is one speech Clinton would prefer to forget.

The Clinton memo’s charge about the Subcommittee on European Affairs—which the campaign now has repeatedly made—represents politics at its most cynical. It’s a false statement. The campaign officials who made it know it’s a false statement. Yet the issue is arcane enough that most readers of the memo wouldn’t know the statement was false—and the press (as seen by Halperin’s introduction) can be counted on to frame the issue in a neutral fashion, since most journalists want to avoid the appearance of editorializing.

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R.R. Hamilton - 3/17/2008

The Clintons are lying again? What a shock. And it's not like the Clintons are the only liars in politics; just that no one (that I've seen) ever did it better. Sen. Kerrey (of Neb., not Mass.) called Bill "an extraordinarily good liar". David Broder invented the term (IIRC) correctly "Clintonism" which he defined as "something that is technically true, but completely misleading". I would love to see a column on some of the best Clintonisms -- "I did NOT have sexual relations with that woman" is only the best-remembered; but it's not in my top three.

It's funny to a lot of Americans to watch liberal Democrats whine -- now! -- about the Clintons', say, casual relationship with the truth. Many were saying 15 or more years ago what liberals are saying today -- but for 15 years liberals stood by their man like Mrs. Spitzer stood by hers. It's richly ironic.