Dems and the War

DEMS AND THE WAR….Mark Schmitt is skeptical of the common notion that, just as it did during the Vietnam war, opposition to the Iraq war will hurt Democrats at the polls:

I?m really tired of the Vietnam/Democrats analogy, in which the entire political history of Vietnam is reduced to McGovern?s loss in 1972. The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because ? let?s not be afraid to admit it ? Democrats started that war….The national security gap for Democrats first appeared in polls in 1967-68, because LBJ was held responsible for the war itself, not because they were associated with antiwar activists.

I think I’d be careful here. It’s true that it’s hard to blame the Democrats’ woes in the late 70s and 80s solely on national security concerns. There were plenty of other issues in play too, most obvious among them a poor economy, the rise of identity politics, and the slow decline of the FDR coalition.

At the same time, the loss of Vietnam, followed by America’s humiliation in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, were unquestionably part of the Reagan resurgence too. It’s not as if this is just a myth made up by later generations of Gipper enthusiasts. Standing up to the Evil Empire really was a big part of his appeal, even if most people at the time said they believed the Soviets were no longer the legendary bogeyman of the 50s and 60s.

Similarly, recent polls on Iraq display an enormous range of opinion, including widely divergent responses to very similar questions. My take is that this represents both considerable angst on the part of the American public as well as a fair amount of cognitive dissonance: they’ve largely given up on the Iraq war itself, but they’re nonetheless reluctant to admit defeat.

This is hardly an unusual situation, and people often deal with it by shooting the messenger. They may say we ought to withdraw from Iraq, but for many of them that opinion is only an inch deep. What they’re really looking for is someone to buck them up and convince them that if only we show enough strength we’ll prevail anyway.

This is why the Democratic response to Iraq is so important. “Withdraw from Iraq” may be popular, but it’s very unlikely that this means the American public is ready to support a broadly dovish foreign policy. At least, it never has in the past.

But there’s an alternative: persuading the American public that there’s a different and more effective way to fight radical jihadism, one that relies more on economic engagement and public diplomacy and less on mid-20th century notions of fighting wars against uniformed armies. Unfortunately, most Dems don’t know how to do this, and their prescriptions end up sounding mushy and unconvincing. In fact, they often sound like they don’t really believe their own rhetoric.

I know it’s easy to say and harder to do, but: for the good of the country and the good of the party, someone better figure out how to do this. My guess is that the messengers of withdrawal from Iraq will end up getting shot (or at least winged) unless they pair up that message with a truly persuasive and inspiring plan for fighting the overall war in a better and more winnable way. The first Dem to do this is the frontrunner for 2008.

For a start on this, see Wes Clark’s “Broken Engagement” from our May 2004 issue. He lays out a lot of the main themes.