By Roxana Tiron - 05/03/06 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack stand out among the bevy of 2008 Democratic hopefuls for refraining from calling for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation in recent weeks.
For most of the potential candidates, Rumsfeld’s recent public flogging by several retired generals only renewed the calls for Rumsfeld’s departure they’ve made over the past few years.
Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will enter the lion’s den this afternoon when they hold a closed-door, bipartisan, members-only briefing on the war in the Capitol this afternoon.
So far, however, Vilsack and Clinton have not joined the chorus calling for Rumsfeld’s ouster. Vilsack has publicly disagreed with those pushing for firing Rumsfeld and immediately pulling out of Iraq.
Clinton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has a more nuanced approach. While she has stopped short of calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation, she asked Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, to hold a hearing with the dissenting retired generals. She said, however, that it is up to the president to decide Rumsfeld’s fate.
“As far as I can tell, Secretary Rumsfeld is doing what the president wants him to do,’’ Clinton said, according to an Associated Press report.
Clinton voted to authorize the war in Iraq, and that vote has left her vulnerable to Democratic criticism as the war stretches into its third year with no resolution in sight. She could easily try to compensate for her yes vote on the war by calling on President Bush to get rid of Rumsfeld, but political observers and pollsters regard Clinton’s somewhat surprising reaction to the Rumsfeld scandal as part of a calculated move to appeal to a more moderate, national base after years of being labeled a staunch liberal.
“All it means is that she is working to make it clear that she is a sober and powerful candidate for public office,” said Democratic pollster Alan Secrest, with Cooper & Secrest Associates in Alexandria, Va. “As a front-runner, she has the luxury to be less immediate in her reactions and take a more calculated approach. It serves a broader strategy that she has in mind.”
Some say that it is too early in the game to tell whether the candidates’ reactions toward Rumsfeld will have an impact on their election prospects, or whether Rumsfeld will still be in office by the time their campaigns are kicking into full gear.
“Folks’ views on foreign policy and the war in Iraq will become clear closer to 2008,” said Peter Fenn, CEO of Fenn & King Associates, a Democratic political and public-affairs media firm. “Right now the more vocal Democrats are in opposition to Rumsfeld the more they energize the base.”
But Fenn said Clinton has been trying to keep her rhetoric cool.
“Every time she gives a fiery speech at a Democratic dinner it ends up on Fox,” Fenn explained. “She is not bombastic. She is trying to keep the rhetoric more moderate.” She also knows that whatever she says about Rumsfeld will not have an effect on Bush’s decisions, he added.
In 2004, Clinton said she would “perhaps” support Rumsfeld’s resignation as criticism of the war and the prisoner-abuse scandal started brewing.
“If I thought that removing Rumsfeld would change the direction of this administration, perhaps I would be for it,” she said at the time in an interview on WNBC-TV’s “News Forum.”
But two years ago Clinton said that Rumsfeld should offer his resignation because “clearly the president is not going to hold him or anybody else accountable for anything.”
In contrast, the other Democratic presidential hopefuls have repeatedly called for Rumsfeld’s resignation. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) was unambiguous about his stance on Rumsfeld: “He should resign, resign, resign,” he said in an interview last week.
Meanwhile, Sens. John Kerry (Mass.), Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.), as well as former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democratic rising star, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have all called for his resignation.
The GOP contenders are split between those expressing full confidence in Rumsfeld, such as Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) and those saying the decision is up to the president. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (Ga.) also has come to Rumsfeld’s defense. Known as one of Rumsfeld’s confidantes, Gingrich wrote last month in a Washington Post editorial that “Rumsfeld’s second tour of duty as defense secretary marks a period of dramatic change.”
Sen. George Allen (Va.) has said that it is up to the president to decide Rumsfeld’s fate. He shares that view with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who has had a strained relationship with Pentagon’s top official.
Another potential GOP candidate in 2008, Sen. Sam Brownback’s (Kan.,) declined to comment for the article, while the offices of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, New York Gov. George Pataki, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did not return calls by press time.