So, what does it all mean in 2016? My guess is that Democratic partisans will simply live with the cognitive dissonance without resolving it; Hillary Clinton’s path to power is too important. Parties have nominated candidates before who were out of step on big issues – issues of war and peace, of conscience and ideology – sometimes not so far in the past. Mitt Romney was the father of a healthcare plan nearly indistinguishable from Obamacare; John Kerry had voted for the Iraq War, as did his running mate and Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008 and 2012; George W. Bush had once been a pro-choice politician, Al Gore once a pro-life politician. But the effort to make out the Iraq War as something deeper and more nefarious than ordinary political decisionmaking puts Hillary’s defenders in an awkward spot, if they take their claimed convictions seriously. The rhetoric of “war criminal!” may be just that: rhetoric to be deployed against Republicans, but conveniently overlooked when the demands of partisan politics require excusing the actions of Democrats. Sociologists have observed that the precipitous decline in anti-war protests under Obama was strongly linked to Democratic partisanship: “the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”.
Moreover, the Obama coalition has made the Democrats increasingly dependent on young voters, many of whom consider the Iraq debates of 2002 irrelevant ancient history. An 18 year old voter in 2008 was 12 then; an 18 year old voter in 2016 was 4. Many may have no idea that Hillary supported the war, and nobody has an incentive to inform them (other than dark horses Rick Santorum and Mike Pence, none of the likely GOP candidates in 2016 were in Congress in 2002, and none is likely to want to rehash the old Iraq debates). It’s this attitude of encountering the world forever anew that led former Obama Administration NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor to dismiss questions about the September 2012 Benghazi attacks with “Dude, this was two years ago.” Compared to Benghazi, the Iraq War is the Stone Age. In fact, that promises to be Secretary Clinton’s approach to basically every question about her two decades in Washington as well as the two decades in Arkansas before that. The Clintons have always excelled at declaring the past, even the immediate past, off limits – not for no reason did they adopt as a theme song Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” with its refrain of “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, don’t stop, it’ll soon be here…yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”