Who is the Gene McCarthy of this generation?
For those too young to recall, in late 1967, Gen. Westmoreland came home
to ask LBJ for 200,000 more troops for Vietnam, in addition to the 500,000 already
committed. LBJ told him no.
Vietnam was the issue of the day. And as no other Democrat dared challenge
Johnson in the primaries of 1968, Sen. McCarthy bravely went into New Hampshire
and declared against him.
He carried 41 percent to LBJ's 49 percent. Johnson's name, however, was
not on the New Hampshire ballot – he was a write-in candidate – and perhaps
half of McCarthy's vote came from Granite State hawks who wanted the United
States to unleash its power and win the war.
But in politics, perception is all. Gene McCarthy broke Johnson's presidency
and converted the antiwar movement into a mass political movement. Four days
after New Hampshire, Robert Kennedy leapt into the race. Two weeks later, Johnson
announced he would not run.
Nixon's victory in 1968, over a divided Democratic Party, became, with
1932, one of the two seminal elections of the 20th century.
Prediction: A Eugene McCarthy will appear soon to pressure and challenge
Hillary Clinton in 2008, if Hillary does not convert herself into an antiwar
For politics abhors a vacuum. And with U.S. casualties now running at the
rate they did before the January elections and polls showing that three in five
Americans think the war a mistake and we should start bringing the troops home,
some Democrat is certain to try to give voice to this majority and ride it into
the White House.
Will a peace candidate be elected? Probably not. None ever has in wartime.
But it seems certain the Democratic Party will be as divided on Iraq in 2008
as it was on Vietnam in 1968.
Why has no national antiwar Democrat emerged since Howard Dean's campaign
collapsed in Iowa, one who could be a serious candidate for the nomination in
Because serious Democrats know that antiwar candidates are rarely nominated
and never win. Even the venerable Sam Nunn of Georgia was finished after he
opposed the Gulf War in 1991. This is likely a reason why skeptics of the Iraq
war – like Clinton, Kerry, Daschle, and Edwards – all voted for war.
They are all now locked in as war hawks on Iraq. The only defense they
can make for that vote today to their antiwar party is to argue that Bush misled
them and mismanaged the war.
But that raises counter-questions.
Why did these senators give Bush a blank check to go to war? Why did they
fail in their duty as custodians of the congressional war powers by not demanding
Bush prove Saddam had ties to 9/11 and an arsenal of WMD he planned to use?
Why did they not ask in advance how the Bush administration planned to pacify
and democratize Iraq? Why did they not demand to known how long pacification
would take and what the cost might be in lives and treasure?
Why did they not say: Mr. President, you must make a better case for war
– before we authorize war?
The pro-war Democrats thus have a grave dilemma to confront.
As John Kerry demonstrated with his agonized performance in 2004 – trying
to rally antiwar Democrats while maintaining his war hawk credentials – a Democrat
who voted for war, only to turn against it, risks being ridiculed as a cut-and-run
liberal. And that is usually fatal.
There is a second reason no potential Democratic nominee has yet demanded
that Bush start bringing the troops home now. Democrats fear the peacenik label.
For they believe this label, pinned on them by Nixon-Reagan-Bush Republicans,
froze them out of the White House for 20 of the 24 years from 1968 to 1992.
And they are right.
Yet the antiwar constituency has now grown to where it can sustain, and
will demand, a national candidate to carry its case to the country.
What about a Republican antiwar candidate in 2008?
There may well be one, but how such a candidate can be nominated by a party
that will be forever associated with the Iraq war is impossible to see. Like
it or not, as the Mexican War is known as "Jimmy Polk's War," the Iraq war is
going to be known as "George Bush's War."
No matter how badly things have gone in Iraq by 2008, how can the GOP nominate
a candidate who has run against the cause that defined the presidency of George
As the Bush poll numbers fall and the Iraq war returns front-and-center
to politics, the divisions in this country over whether to stay the course;
escalate, as the prospect of failure is intolerable to the nation; or begin
to withdraw and take the consequences will reappear and deepen.
A politics of war, a politics of upheaval, lie just ahead.
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