Two weeks on, Hillary condemns the MoveOn ad.

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Sept. 24 2007 5:38 PM

Umbrage Lag

Two weeks on, Hillary condemns the MoveOn ad.

Hillary Clinton. Click image to expand.
Sen. Hillary Clinton

During Hillary Clinton's marathon of television performances Sunday, she was asked yet again about the MoveOn.org newspaper ad that questioned Gen. David Petraeus' truthfulness. Clinton had already been asked about the ad four times previously, but this time she had a new answer: She denounced it. "I don't condone anything like that, and I have voted against those who would impugn the patriotism and the service of the people who wear the uniform of our country," she told Tim Russert. "I don't believe that that should be said about General Petraeus, and I condemn that."

Isn't it way too late to start with the condemnation? Clinton has already been extensively praised and attacked for not speaking out about the ad, which ran some two weeks ago. If you're going to be outraged, don't you have to express that soon after the offense occurs or at least in the first few times you're asked about it? If this was really how she felt, she should have joined Joe Biden or Elizabeth Edwards, who criticized MoveOn before everyone moved on. Waiting so long and then claiming outrage just looks phony.

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The political result of the episode seems bad all-around for Clinton. She gets no points from independents or moderates for sticking up for the general when it mattered, and she loses whatever props she might have gotten from anti-war activists for sticking by her friends.  (Hillary didn't actually denounce MoveOn by name Sunday, but those already suspicious of her calculations won't be fooled.)

Of course, Clinton is not alone in responding politically to the ad. Rudy Giuliani has not given a single speech devoted to Iraq, and his 6,000-word foreign-policy tract contained only a few hundred words of boilerplate about the conflict. But he jumped into the middle of the war debate when he saw political advantage in attacking Clinton for not denouncing the MoveOn ad. Barack Obama responded by trying to have it both ways—praising Petraeus, but declining in statements to distance himself from the ad or MoveOn. If you think the general is swell, you can't fail to object to the ad. With a regular pol, it would be easier to let the inconsistency slide, but Obama has been campaigning as something different from your ordinary politician.

But looking shifty is a bigger problem for Hillary Clinton than it is for other politicians, including Giuliani and Obama. Her late expression of outrage touches on one of her big weaknesses—that she's unprincipled and calculating. This charge is at the heart of the criticism of her Iraq war vote. The left can maybe forgive John Edwards for being wrong. But by refusing to acknowledge that her war vote was a mistake, Clinton looks like she's triangulating, trying to satisfy the maximum number of voters.

Obama raises the trust issue in one of his latest ads. Both he and Clinton are trying to run as candidates of change. Obama's tag line is "change you can believe in." It goes without saying that the change pitch you shouldn't fall for comes from the lady with the good poll numbers.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.