'Antiwar' and Other Fighting Words- NYT
October 29, 2006
‘Antiwar’ and Other Fighting Words
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
DEMOCRATS have spent three decades trying to exorcise the ghost of Senator George S. McGovern, whose losing 1972 presidential campaign calling for a withdrawal from Vietnam crystallized his party’s image as soft on national defense.
But surveying the midterm elections last week, Mr. McGovern, 84, said he sees an opportunity for an antiwar campaign in the 2008 presidential race.
“I would love to be running again if I were 25 years younger,” he said in an interview from his Montana home. “I think I would win.”
On the eve of the midterms, dismay over the Iraq war has propelled the Democrats to a political status they have not enjoyed since before Mr. McGovern: for the first time in decades, polls show that the public trusts Democrats as much as Republicans to handle foreign affairs.
But as they look ahead, Democrats are torn between two visions of their history. Some potential candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary and many liberal activists argue that the Republican responsibility for the Iraq war has, in effect, freed the Democrats from Mr. McGovern’s legacy. They say the 2006 elections will provide a mandate for a new antiwar argument: that troops can be pulled from Iraq in order to shore up American security elsewhere in the world.
Other strategists and political scientists argue that the Iraq war has given the Democrats a different opportunity to lay to rest their McGovernite image, in part by rejecting calls for a quick withdrawal in Iraq.
“All voters are doing is giving Democrats a chance, and we better not blow it,” said Gary Hart, the former senator and presidential candidate.
A younger McGovern could probably win the Democratic primary, Mr. Hart said, but he would still lose the general election. “Just running on a platform of ‘get us out of Iraq’ is not going to solve the Democrats’ problem on the issue of national security,” he said.
After Vietnam, there was a brief time when both parties seemed to compete to be seen as the party of restraint: the moment in the 1976 presidential race when Senator Bob Dole, the Republican nominee for vice president, charged that the “Democrat wars” of the 20th century had killed or wounded “1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
But the Iranian hostage crisis three years later put an end to that short peace fad. And ever since President Ronald Reagan’s campaign for a military buildup, Democrats have suffered from a reputation as the party that was less sure to keep America safe. Their only presidential victories were in the years of relative peace between the end of the cold war and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
During the midterm campaigns, Democrats have risen in the polls merely by attacking President Bush’s conduct of the war. They have not spelled out or agreed on a clear alternative of their own.
That luxury, however, is coming to an end. On Nov. 8, the day after the election, attention will shift toward the 2008 presidential race. How to handle Iraq could be the defining issue of the Democratic primary, and criticizing President Bush may not count for much in the general election since the Republican nominee may also be a vocal critic of his administration’s handling of the war.
Pleasing the party’s “bring ’em home” base while burnishing its security credentials may not be easy. A USA Today poll released Friday showed that more than 80 percent of the public expects Democrats to set a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq if they take control of Congress. But so far none of Democratic Congressional leaders has called for a fixed deadline.
And although all the potential primary candidates — and President Bush for that matter — say they want the troops home as soon as possible, on the question of a timetable, their views could hardly be more disparate.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the most prominent candidate, has rejected any timetable for withdrawal. Senator John Kerry, the 2004 nominee, and Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin have already called for a fixed deadline.
Many Democrats, Mr. Feingold argued, have made a “serious mistake” by getting caught up in the party’s Vietnam history. Fearing Mr. McGovern’s fate, they are stuck in what he called “the Iraq trap.”
“They think if somebody calls for a timetable to get out of Iraq they will be labeled as ‘cut and run,’ ” Mr. Feingold said. Democratic gains in the 2006 elections, he said, will show that the public accepts the broader argument for a pullout from Iraq in order to fight terrorism more effectively elsewhere in the world.
Kevin Mattson, a liberal historian at Ohio University, argued that the comparisons to the McGovern campaign were misleading and “goofy.”
For one thing, unlike critics of the Iraq war, neither Mr. McGovern nor any other prominent Democrat opposed the Vietnam War because it was an impediment to the fight against Communism — an argument that would have been hard to make at that advanced stage of the cold war. Advisers to Vice President Hubert Humphrey urged him to make such a case in 1968 but he refused, Mr. Mattson said.
Others, however, argued that letting their victories this year eclipse the McGovern experience may be the biggest risk that Democrats face in 2008. “My concern is that some Democrats will learn the wrong lessons from our victory,” Senator Joe Biden of Delaware said.
Noting the number of conservative Democratic challengers this fall, he said that voters are seeking “a bipartisan consensus” about how to leave more than chaos and instability in Iraq. “A pullout is not a plan,” Mr. Biden said, “it is a reaction.” What sealed the Democrats’ image after Vietnam, historians say, was not just Mr. McGovern’s campaign but also their reaction as public opinion turned on the war. After 1968, Democrats in Congress began pressing to curtail the war or cut off its financing. And their efforts reached a peak after the post-Watergate midterm election of 1974, when many Democrats interpreted their landslide gains as a mandate to cut back on national defense.
No one is making similar proposals today. But James M. Lindsay, a director of the Robert S. Strauss for International Security and Law at the University of Texas in Austin and a former national security official in the Clinton administration, said big wins in 2006 may well embolden antiwar Democrats in 2008, while pulling “centrists” like Mrs. Clinton closer to withdrawal.
“But there are going to be a lot of Democratic strategists whispering in their ears that ‘you don’t want to go there’ because it is bad politics, and it is bad policy to boot,” he said. “The problem is you also have to win the general election. You don’t need to appeal to people who have made up their mind and had a bumper sticker on the back of their car for the last four years.”
Mr. McGovern, for his part, said the debate reminded him of the way Republicans used to accuse Democrats of being weak on Communism, even though containment was a Democratic idea. “I sure hope we are not going to have 50 years of being weak on terrorism in the eyes of Republicans,” he said.