"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
For presidential aspirant John Kerry, this unfortunate utterance—in reference to Iraq war appropriations while campaigning in West Virginia in March 2004—marked the beginning of the end of his candidacy, instantly validating what, to that point, had been a largely disingenuous campaign by Republican attack dogs to paint the Massachusetts senator as a politically opportunistic Martha's Vineyard windsurfer who just couldn't seem to make up his mind. In so doing, President Bush's henchmen delivered the linguistic coup de grâce of the 2004 election: flip-flop, a term previously associated with cheap plastic beach sandals.
So it would stand to reason that the last thing Democrats would want in this current election cycle would be to have any of their candidates branded as flip-floppers. And yet U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is being assailed for not flip-flopping.
Washington's junior senator, in case you've spent the last month sunning in Barbados, has come under fire from her party's antiwar wing. Like so many of her Democratic peers, Cantwell voted in 2002 to authorize the initial strike on Iraq. Unlike many of her Democratic peers, she's stubbornly declined to apologize or backpedal, even as it's become more and more apparent that American soldiers were sent into battle under false pretenses. She's refused to flip-flop.
Instead, Cantwell has crafted a nuanced plan for how the Bush administration might go about correcting course in Iraq with more international collaboration and contract bidding, rather than calling for massive troop withdrawal while the likes of Halliburton line selected pockets with no-compete cash.
Cantwell detractors have lambasted her response to their concerns over the war as being anywhere from wonkishly convoluted to downright incomprehensible. Having worked as Cantwell's deputy press secretary during her narrow 2000 victory over longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, I feel their pain.
But I also think it'd be in everyone's best interest if they'd back off.
Cantwell is far from perfect. In fact, she ranks high among the most difficult people I've ever worked for or with. The seven months I spent in her charge felt like seven years. The campaign, larded with her RealNetworks stock windfall, spent more money on Red Vines than most candidates spend on direct mail. And conspicuous consumption during happy hour became all but a necessity, as it was invariably better to be half in the bag when Cantwell, a paranoid hellcat of a boss who rolls through staff like toilet paper, would make her daily sweep through the office, berating everyone in sight.
On the trail, Cantwell often handled small groups of constituents in closed settings well. But she was not what you would call warm—a trait that should be preternatural for politicians of her stature. Her stump speeches were uninspiring and her grace with would-be donors flaccid at best. Most of the people who helped guide her to victory were motivated almost exclusively by their disdain for her opponent. Had a dead squirrel been the Democratic nominee for Senate that year, we would have busted our butts for the dead squirrel. Hell, we may have worked harder, because squirrels can't talk— especially dead ones.
Essentially, we worked for Maria in spite of Maria. Yet if you were to ask Cantwell, the only person responsible for her victory over Gorton was the person who stared back at her in the bathroom mirror each morning. Her lack of gratitude and common human decency were simply repulsive. When the campaign ended, virtually nobody sought to accompany her to D.C. in even the cushiest of capacities. Good night and good luck, Senator, was the collective adieu.
So There are plenty of good reasons for voters to withhold support from Cantwell, but her stance on the war isn't one of them. Despite the litany of character flaws, she remains a brilliant, driven public servant who rarely lets political expediency enter her sphere of consideration. Cantwell's grasp of issues is firm and progressive, and she exhibits passion for complex branches of policy making—energy and trade among them—that most politicians hit the snooze button on. She's the perfect intellectual complement to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, who tends to gravitate toward more tangible matters.
As for the war, President Bush should be raked across hot coals in the court of public opinion, but Cantwell shouldn't. This isn't her war, it's her vote. And whether you agree with her views on the war or not, she's taken full responsibility and tried to deal with the situation at hand rather than taking the easy way out and disowning the whole shebang.
What's obvious at this point is that Cantwell is not going to wilt in the face of intraparty criticism. Whatever her personality shortcomings, she's a principled, thoughtful legislator who meets the consequences of her actions head-on and without apology. And unless antiwar activists want those consequences to be a Republican stealing her seat come November, they'd best put a sock in it.
The real Mossback, Editor in Chief Knute Berger, is on vacation.