November 26, 2006
The Party of McClellan or McGovern?By Jeffrey Schmidt
It's easy to say what the Democrats won't be in 2008. They won't be the Party of Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman or John Kennedy. They won't even turn to Woodrow Wilson for inspiration. None of these presidents truly capture who the Democrats are today, at least when it comes to the War on Terror.
So, who are today's Democrats, or, better, who will they be in 2008? People accept that the War on Terror will be around in two years, and for many years thereafter. And unless there are dramatic developments, Iraq will be with us as well, to what extent and in what form is the big question. In 2008, the status of both will determine who the Democrats are, or who in their history best personifies them.
No Democrat war president in recent history fits the bill. Roosevelt saw clearly the threats posed by Germany and Japan and acted to defeat them. Truman fought the Cold War to stymie Soviet aggression. Kennedy stood down the Russians at Berlin and in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wilson, his initial pledge notwithstanding, joined the Allies to defeat the Germans in the First World War.
Today's Democrats are a mixed bag, with a decided antiwar tilt. Joe Lieberman and like-minded supporters of the war-on terror and in Iraq-are a minority. Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi seem to represent the majority, who either think that terrorism is solely a criminal matter, subject to law enforcement remedies, or whose notion of fighting a war is beefed up homeland security, U.N. resolutions, sanctions and diplomatic action in concert with allies. Nowhere in their thinking do they permit that wars require offensive action. The necessity of seeking out and destroying an enemy before that enemy has a chance to strike us is foreign to them. They do not recognize Iraq as a critical battlefront in the overall War on Terror, but interpret it narrowly and with great bias as a redo of Vietnam. Their calls for a "phased" withdrawal or "redeployment" from Iraq echoes the Left's position on the Vietnam War, which led to a congressional prohibition of any further U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia in 1973. The result was, by conservative estimates, nearly a million South Vietnamese killed at the hands of the Communists after their victory in 1975.
One of two men from the Democrats' past-neither a president but both presidential nominees during wars-are good bets to personify the Democrats as they move forward. Which type of man will prevail hinges on the status of the War on Terror and the Iraq conflict, and, critically, voter perceptions of both.
McClellan and the Peace Democrats
In 1864, General George B. McClellan was the Democrats' nominee against the Republican incumbent, Abraham Lincoln. The Civil War hadn't been going the Republicans' way, to put it mildly. By the summer of 1864 efforts to win the war were stalled. Union voters were war-weary and searching for an alternative to Lincoln's Stay-the-Course approach.
McClellan was the Democrats' beau ideal. He had been popular with his troops, having trained and provisioned them very well, and having spared them the unpleasantness of too many battlefield casualties, given his reluctance to fight. That reluctance caused Lincoln to remove him from command. He was called a War Democrat for his general support of the war effort, though he found plenty of fault with Lincoln's handling of it. He ran on a platform that contained a conspicuous-and awkward-plank, hammered in by the Peace Democrats, a small but disproportionately influential constituency that wanted to end the war on terms generous to the Confederacy. The Republicans had effectively tagged the Peace Democrats as Copperheads, so-called because their position on the war conjured up notions of venomous snakes lying in wait to strike blows at the north. The real copperhead snake ranges, principally, throughout the southeastern United States.
By August of 1864, the Democrats were licking their chops. They nominated McClellan for president and anticipated an impressive victory over Lincoln's Union ticket and his Republican stalwarts that November. But fate intervened, or the dogged aggressiveness of Grant, Sherman and Sheridan finally paid off for Lincoln. In early September, William Tecumseh Sherman racked up a big victory in the Battle of Atlanta, and then marched his troops to the sea, ravaging the Georgia countryside as he went. Phil Sheridan, the Union cavalry general, beat the Confederates in Virginia's agriculturally vital Shenandoah Valley. The end of the war was in sight, heartening voters. McClellan's drumbeat criticisms of Lincoln's war management lost their punch. The Copperheads' plank looked more and more like an argument for surrender. Lincoln and the Republicans went on to a resounding victory.
2008 will certainly be different from 1864 in many respects. There will be no Republican incumbent, though Democrats will try to hang every flaw and fault, real or imagined, of President Bush around the neck of the GOP's nominee. The Democrats, not the Republicans, will control Congress, meaning that they will have records on the War on Terror and Iraq to explain and defend. President Bush and Robert Gates, Donald Rumsfeld's successor as Secretary of Defense, will have modified U.S. strategy and tactics in Iraq, reallocating or increasing resources there. Perhaps in line with recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, timetables will have been advanced to "Iraqize" the conflict.
The conflict is not likely to be worse than it is today, unless Congressional Democrats act to defund U.S. efforts or attach such onerous conditions to funding as to hamper the military's mission. It is highly improbable that anything like the Battle of Atlanta will have occurred to dramatically change American fortunes in Iraq, but the situation may have improved, or may be perceived to have improved, based on the changes initiated by the president.
If that is the case, if voters perceive some headway having been made in Iraq, if, because of Iraqization, voters see U.S. involvement in transition, the Democrats will have to be shrewd about who they nominate for president-or better put, the party's putative nominee, Hillary Rodham Clinton, will have to be shrewd about which mask she wears. An out-and-out antiwar candidate would fare disastrously with the general electorate. A candidate wearing the mask of Roosevelt or Truman or Kennedy or Wilson would fare terribly with the party's core activists (the modern Peace Democrats), who want an end to offensive military action.
McClellan is the mask that Senator Clinton would wear because it offers her the ability to project general support for the War on Terror while dishing up plenty of criticism of Bush's management of it, even if the Iraq situation is perceived as improved. To placate the party's core activists, who furnish the grassroots organization and raise a lot of money, Senator Clinton may give tacit approval to antiwar planks in the party's platform, publicly warn about the dangers of future Iraqs, and call for more United Nations leadership and push greater allied involvement, while offering support for military action in the abstract.
McGovern and the Peaceniks
On the other hand, if the Iraq conflict is as today, perceived as a muddle with a slow but steady attrition of American lives and no end in sight, or if it deteriorates for reasons other than defunding or funding restrictions, and voters' perceptions are highly unfavorable and the party's core activists are intensively restive, then the Democrat nominee-Senator Clinton-may have no other choice than to wear the mask of George McGovern, the party's 1972 candidate for president who lost to Richard M. Nixon in a landslide. Failure to do so may cost her the nomination, with the likes of Al Gore or John Kerry outflanking her on the left.
By the '72 election, the Vietnam War had been fought in earnest for seven years. Nixon, running for reelection, had begun the process of U.S. disengaged in 1969. Three years later, Vietnamization was well underway and close to accomplishment. Though the war was unpopular, the American people did see an end in sight and generally supported Nixon's aim of achieving "Peace with Honor."
At this time the Democratic Party was undergoing a revolution. Peace activists, preponderantly young and leftwing, had mounted an insurgency to wrest control of the party from establishment liberals and bosses at the '68 convention in Chicago. Though their efforts failed, fours years later, after much groundwork, they took control of the party and nominated George McGovern, the leftwing senator from South Dakota who advocated defunding the Vietnam War and an immediate withdrawal of American troops.
The election was a catastrophe for McGovern and the Democrats, having lost forty-nine states. But the leftwing had achieved its end: party dominance, which it has never relinquished. Even during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who positioned himself as a centrist, the Left had enormous influence on policy. The largest policy initiative of Clinton's two terms in office, the nationalization of healthcare, originated on the Left, and the campaign to win legislation was led by the First Lady. That campaign ended in a debacle and contributed to the Democrats losing Congress in 1994.
Whither the Democrats?
Will the Democrats be the Party of McClellan or McGovern in 2008? Two years is a long time in politics, and there are events that have yet to play themselves out or have yet to occur.
It is worth noting that had not Union fortunes turned in September of 1864, McClellan stood a better than even chance of unseating Lincoln in the November election. Given McClellan's poor track record as a general, and given the Copperheads nipping at his heels, what he could have done differently to bring about a speedy victory over the south is hard to say.
But for the Democrats the McClellan model affords them, at least, the prospect of victory. The McGovern model offers them a vehicle for loud dissent, a noisy protest and, ultimately, defeat. In 1972, with the war winding down but still lingering, with memories fresh of tens of thousands of dead G.I.s, voters, overwhelmingly, opted to re-elect the candidate who pledged not to abandon the South Vietnamese and who sought to salvage victory, even if that victory was a costly stalemate.
Have Americans changed so much in a generation that they are apt to elect a latter-day McGovern? In October, The Pew Research Center found Americans evenly divided as to whether or not the United States should withdraw from Iraq. Given the mainstream media's unceasingly heavy negative reporting on Iraq, it is altogether remarkable that half of America believes that the United States should stay in Iraq until the situation there is stabilized. Support for the overall War on Terror remains strong.
George B. McClellan may not be modern Democrats' beau ideal, but his model might be the party's best shot at victory in 2008. If not, Al Gore or John Kerry-or Hillary Rodham Clinton, pulled left by her party's activist base-are liable to meet the same fate as the other George did thirty-six years earlier.