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Running for President
Means Never Having
To Say "I'm Sorry"

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's position on her vote to authorize the Iraq war hinges on what it means to apologize. (AP)

No matter how much antiwar activists or election rivals have pressured her, Hillary Rodham Clinton long ago made clear she would not apologize for voting for the congressional resolution in 2002 that authorized the invasion of Iraq. Through town hall meetings and televised debates, she has refused every invitation to say, "I'm sorry."

But what about "regret"? The New York senator and Democratic presidential frontrunner employed an interesting formulation Sunday in the never-ending evolution of her statements about the Iraq war vote. During a debate on ABC's "This Week," the candidates were asked to name a major issue on which they had not told the whole truth. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), who long ago repudiated his support for the war, repeated that. "I cast the wrong vote," he said.

Clinton came next and implied that she agreed with Edwards. "Well, I, too, regret giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused," she said. "It was a very difficult decision and I tried to weigh it as carefully as possible." She said she had been reassured by President Bush that he would pursue diplomacy. "So you know, looking back on it, I wouldn't have voted that way again, certainly, because obviously President Bush had no intention of doing what he said he was going to do. And obviously for me that is a great regret."

Whenever Clinton talks about the war, it seems, her words are intensely scrutinized. Just yesterday, she told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that in at least one region in terms of security, the current Bush strategy in Iraq seems to be succeeding. ''We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar Province, it's working,'' she said. ''We're just years too late changing our tactics. We can't ever let that happen again. We can't be fighting the last war; we have to be preparing to fight the new war.''

Does that mean she now supports the surge, as the administration calls it? No. She also told the VFW that the best way to honor U.S. troops in Iraq is "by beginning to bring them home." All of this has already set the blogosphere ablaze with discussion of the senator's latest thoughts on the war. Like the chatter about her non-apologies over the months, it will be chewed on for evidence of whatever sin her critics see in her stance on the war.

No one pressed her on her "regret" comment during the debate, including Edwards, who in the past has chided her for refusing to apologize or more explicitly say she was wrong. But Clinton's language underscored a broader progression in her public assessment of her 2002 decision. For years, she has said she regretted not her vote but that Bush in her view misused the authority Congress gave him. For a while now, she has said she would not have voted the same way if she knew then what she knows now. But she has been reluctant to say unequivocally that she regretted casting the vote or that she was sorry.

Appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live" in April 2004, for instance, she was asked if she regretted her vote. "No," she said, "I don't regret giving the president authority because at the time it was in the context of weapons of mass destruction, grave threats to the United States, and clearly, Saddam Hussein had been a real problem for the international community for more than a decade."

By the time she launched her campaign last winter, she had massaged her position. "I have taken responsibility for my vote," she told a New Hampshire resident who asked in February if her vote for the war was a mistake. "The mistakes were made by this president who misled this country and this Congress into a war that should not have been waged."

By June 3, during a debate sponsored by CNN and New Hampshire's WMUR television, she both acknowledged a mistake but said she was not necessarily wrong: "I have said repeatedly that if I had known then what I know now, I never would have voted to give the president authority. And in the last debate, I said that, you know, it was a mistake to trust George Bush that he would do what he told all of us he would do." She went on to say of her vote: "Now, I do not think that that is a necessarily wrong judgment at the time. What was wrong is the way this president misused the authority that some of us here gave him."

Now, she says she "regrets" giving Bush the authority not just that he "misused" it. That's in keeping with a series of subtle wording changes that over time have added up to a larger shift. On Salon, the left-leaning Internet magazine, Tim Grieve once documented the path she has traveled from October 2002 through last winter when she entered the race.

But rest assured, her campaign says she's still not apologizing. "There is a difference in saying she regrets her vote and apologizing for it," her spokesman, Phil Singer, said by email. Asked what the difference is, he did not reply.

So what is the difference? Let's check the dictionary. To regret means "to feel sorrow or remorse for (an act, fault, disappointment, etc.)," according to Another listed definition of regret is simpler: "to be sorry about" (emphasis added). Sound like an apology? Well, according to the dictionary, to apologize means "to make excuse for or regretful acknowledgment of a fault or offense". Isn't that the same thing? The thesaurus on lists "to apologize" as a synonym for "to regret" At the same time, it adds this caution: "Regret carries no explicit admission that one is responsible for an incident."

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. But the senator seems to think it means something since she has chosen her words so carefully and tried to avoid using the words others would put in her mouth. And of course, linguistic legerdemain seems awfully familiar to anyone who covered Bill Clinton's presidency, when word parsing became a full-time occupation in Washington. ("I have never broken the laws of my country," he said to avoid admitting he smoked marijuana in London. "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is," he said to weave around admissions regarding his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.)

What's striking, though, is that Hillary Clinton seems to have defused some of the heat once surrounding her 2002 vote. What last winter seemed like a critical vulnerability with the antiwar left that presumably would damage her prospects in the Democratic primary process has largely faded as an issue. Her latest regret passed by Sunday with little notice (one exception being a satirical web site that reported, tongue in cheek, that Clinton "now regrets having said she did not regret her Iraqi war authorization vote").

Perhaps that's because her shift has been more substantive. Clinton has changed her position on the war from the days when she said she would "reject a rigid timetable" for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Now she has voted a timetable for withdrawal. And the senator who for a long time did not regret voting to authorize the war recently sponsored legislation to deauthorize it.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  August 21, 2007; 8:48 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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