PHILADELPHIA >> Hillary Rodham Clinton has been in this spot before.
As a senator in 2002, she endorsed military action in Iraq, a decision that came back to haunt her in her failed White House bid six years later.
Now, the former secretary of state and potential 2016 presidential candidate is risking the possibility of a similar political situation in a future campaign with her support of President Barack Obama’s call for a U.S.-led military strike in Syria as punishment for the use of chemical weapons.
The two conflicts are different: Iraq was a full-fledged war with ground troops that lasted nearly nine years, while the Obama administration is talking about a limited, focused military strike with the hope of a diplomatic solution in Syria. Even so, opponents could use Clinton’s position against her in a future campaign.
Accepting the Liberty medal at the National Constitution Center, Clinton noted that Obama would address the nation later in the evening “about the Assad regime’s inhuman use of lethal chemical weapons against men women and children. That violates a universal norm at the heart of our global order and it demands a strong response from the international community led by the United States.”
Clinton reiterated similar remarks from Monday at an unrelated event at the White House, adding at the Philadelphia event, “This debate is good for our democracy. As our founders knew, fervent arguments are the life blood of self-government.”
Clinton shared the stage with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the organization’s chairman and a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016. A small group of protesters gathered near the site, some shouting “Hands Off Syria.” Others carried signs that read, “Benghazi,” a reference to the terrorist attacks in Libya, which occurred on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Military intervention in Syria faces widespread American and congressional opposition.
An Associated Press poll released Monday found that most American opposed even a limited attack — likely with cruise missiles — and about half were fearful that a strike would lead to a long-term U.S. military commitment in Syria. Many lawmakers in the House and Senate have registered their opposition to a resolution, which could be delayed amid the possibility that Syria may turn over its chemical weapons to avert U.S. missile strikes.
Given the unpopularity of Obama’s call for action, Clinton’s entrance into the debate over Syria had implications for his political stature.
Any daylight between the president and Clinton, a former top member of his administration, on Syria would have been significant and would have given wavering Democrats another reason to oppose the military action. But by lending her support to the president, Clinton ended up reinforcing the administration’s message to lawmakers and leaders around the globe about the severity of Syria’s use of chemical weapons and the need for it to carry consequences.
And then there are her own political implications.
As she did with the Iraq vote nearly a dozen years ago, Clinton is betting she will be on the right side of history by standing firm with Obama despite the public opinion polls and a divided Congress.
It was similar to the gamble she made in 2002 when she voted to give President George W. Bush the authorization to use force in Iraq. The resolution passed the Senate with 77 votes, including 29 Democrats, and American public opinion was more supportive of war in Iraq. By the time the 2008 presidential primary came around, support for the war had soured considerably, particularly among core Democratic voters who were heading to polls to choose the party’s nominee.
Obama, who had spoken out in opposition to the war as an Illinois state senator, won the nomination in part by playing up the differences in their positions on the Iraq war, and Clinton found herself opposed by many anti-war Democratic voters in many early voting states.
Clinton’s supporters say this time is different, and they argue that she will be rewarded politically for sticking by the president.
“That shows sometimes leaders have to do the thing that may not currently be the politically popular thing to do but they think is the right thing to do,” said Kathy Sullivan, a former state party chairwoman in New Hampshire who was the co-chair of Clinton’s 2008 campaign in that first-in-the-nation primary state. “At the end of this, people will respect her for her decision.”
Yet Republicans already are calling it a liability. “She is wrapped up in the administration’s bungled Syria policy no matter how she tries to maneuver politically,” said Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising PAC.
Clinton’s backing was not exactly a surprise.
As the nation’s top diplomat, she supported intervening in Syria with a proposal in the summer of 2012 to arm vetted units of the Syrian rebels. The White House later rebuffed those plans. Clinton also pushed attempts in the United Nations to develop a political transition in Syria and provide humanitarian aid to Syrians.
Clinton had said earlier this year that she would use the speech in Philadelphia to discuss her views of national security and privacy. But aides said those plans were put on hold given the focus on Syria and the fact that Obama was delivering a White House address two hours later.