I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

It's not 1972

By Anonymous Liberal -- The entirely predictable conventional wisdom that seems to be emerging from Joe Lieberman's stunning primary defeat on Tuesday is that the Democratic party is on the verge of repeating the mistake it made in 1972, when anti-war candidate George McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon. This talking point is being repeated not only by right-wing commentators, but mainstream journalists and left-leaning pundits as well. For instance, Jacob Weisberg of Slate had this to say:

This is a signal event that will have a huge and
lasting negative impact on the Democratic Party.
The result suggests that instead of capitalizing on
the massive failures of the Bush administration,
Democrats are poised to re-enact a version of the
Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out
six presidential elections between 1968 and the
end of the Cold War.
To drive this point home, Weisberg's column is accompanied by a cartoon image of a donkey in hippie garb holding a flower and making a peace sign. Weisberg reminds us that:

The party's Vietnam-era drift away from issues of
security and defense--and its association with a
radical left hostile to the military and neutral in the
fight between liberalism and communism--helped
push a lot of Americans who didn't much like the
Vietnam War into the arms of Richard
I don't really dispute Weisberg's description of what happened back in 1968 and 1972, nor am I willing to entirely rule out the possibility that the same thing could happen again. But I do think there are some important differences between 2006 and 1972, differences that Weisberg and others making this argument seem intent on ignoring.

1) Voters in 1972 did not have any historical context for understanding what was happening in Vietnam. America had not previously been involved in such a debacle; we had never lost a war. As a result, though much of America was upset about the war, many had not yet resigned themselves to the fact that the war was unwinnable. They were not yet willing to walk away, to accept failure. But had voters known when they were casting their ballots in 1972 that we would eventually do exactly what McGovern was calling for (but only after many more needless deaths), I suspect McGovern would have done a lot better.

And therein lies an important difference between now and then. Now people have a very relevant historical analogy to draw upon. People still vividly remember Vietnam and cannot help but draw parallels between the two conflicts (as all the comparisons to 1972 illustrate). But it's silly to pretend that we're all going through this for the first time again. Weisberg's analysis assumes that nobody learned anything in the interim, that our experience in Vietnam hasn't in any way affected how the public views these issues. It has.

2) There is nothing at the moment even remotely comparable to the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s. There are no sit-ins, no demonstrations, no unrest, and no "dirty hippies" to frighten the masses. In short, there is nothing about the current "anti-war movement" that seems likely to create a cultural backlash or alienate otherwise like-minded voters.

3) As Mark Schmitt pointed out a few days ago, the party dynamics are very different in the present conflict. The Vietnam War was started and prosecuted initially by Democrats. This allowed Nixon and the GOP to deflect much of the political blame for the war. They could plausibly claim that they were just trying to salvage the situation, to win a conflict that others had begun. This dynamic also led, understandably, to greater internecine squabbling within the Democratic party.

But the Republican party owns the war in Iraq. Yes, many Democrats voted in favor of the Iraq resolution, but it was not their idea. And more importantly, they've not controlled any branch of government at any point during the conflict and have not had any say whatsoever in how the war has been prosecuted. That makes it much harder for the GOP to deflect the blame for this debacle. It rests squarely on their shoulders.

4) The Democrats have a very different message this time around. Weisberg points out that in the 60s and 70s, criticism of the Vietnam War led many on the left to downplay the genuine threats that existed in the world. But the primary argument offered by Democrats critical of the Iraq War is that it has made us less safe, that by invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 or al Qaeda, we diverted our attention from the real enemy and actually exacerbated the terrorist threat. That's a fundamentally hawkish critique. Indeed, the primary advocates of this view--people like Al Gore, Howard Dean, and Wesley Clark--all have indisputably hawkish records on foreign policy. And yet they are the darlings of the netroots and the "anti-war movement." Which leads me to the final difference.

5) Democratic politicians and their supporters are all keenly aware of what happened in 1972. They don't need Jacob Weisberg to remind them. If anything, they have over-internalized this lesson. Democratic war critics are always very careful to frame their message in terms that make it clear that they take the terrorism threat seriously and that they fully support our troops. Here's Wesley Clark speaking yesterday:

You see, despite what Joe Lieberman believes,
invading Iraq and diverting our attention away
from Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is not being
strong on national security. Blind allegiance to
George W. Bush and his failed "stay the course"
strategy is not being strong on national security.
And no, Senator Lieberman, no matter how you
demonize your opponents, there is no
"antisecurity wing" of the Democratic Party.

Put simply, there is virtually no chance that Democratic politicians will start using pacifist rhetoric or downplaying the threat of terrorism. They know that doing so would be political suicide, particularly if there were to be another terrorist attack. Moreover, the netroots and Democratic activists don't want pacifist Democrats. They just want Democrats who are right about this war. That's why they love Gore and Dean and Clark.

And even if all of these obvious differences didn't exist, what does Weisberg expect the Democratic party to do? Say nothing as the situation continues to deteriorate? As Digby put it today:

When your country is engaged in dangerous wars
based on lies and obscure reasoning, it is immoral
to say nothing simply because you are afraid it
will make you look bad.

The voters deserve the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the Iraq War, and it's clear that the Republican party is not going to give it to them; the GOP just has too much political capital invested in this war. That leaves the task of grappling seriously with the strategic errors of the last four years to the Democrats. With 60% of the country opposed to this war, I really don't think the Democratic party will be punished for voting one of the war's chief supporters out of office.

-posted by A.L.

UPDATE: Barbara O'Brien takes issue with Weisberg's description of what happened in 1972.

My Ecosystem Details