Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Democrats face another Vietnam

The Democrats face another Vietnam
By Jacob Weisberg
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 9 2006 19:46 | Last updated: August 9 2006 19:46

Political analysts tend to over-interpret the results of isolated elections. But one can hardly read too much into Ned Lamont’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in Tuesday’s Connecticut primary. This is a signal event that will have a huge and lasting impact on the Democratic party. The result suggests that, instead of capitalising on the massive failures of the Bush administration, Democrats are poised to re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped make them a minority party in US presidential politics for more than two decades.

The election was about one issue: the war in Iraq. Mr Lieberman was an otherwise highly regarded, well-ensconced Democratic incumbent, who would never have faced a meaningful primary challenge had he not vocally supported President George W. Bush’s invasion in 2003, continued to defend the war in principle and opposed adopting a timetable for withdrawal. Mr Lamont, a preppy political novice from the wealthy enclave of Greenwich, got the idea to run last year when something he read in the Wall Street Journal made him gag on his breakfast. It was a hopeful analysis of Iraq by Mr Lieberman.

As a candidate, Mr Lamont was less a fleshed-out alternative to Mr Lieberman than a stand-in for the anti-war, anti-Bush left. His campaign was made plausible by web-based activists, who cared principally about the war in Iraq and who badgered Mr Lieberman about his support for it.

Mr Lieberman’s opponents are not entirely wrong about the war. The invasion of Iraq was, in ways that have since become hard to dispute, a terrible mistake. There were no weapons of mass destruction to be dismantled, the US had no real plan for occupying the country and its troops remain there only to prevent the civil war it unleashed from turning into a bigger and more horrific civil war. Just about everyone now agrees that the sooner it finds a way to withdraw, the better for the US and for the Iraqis. The problem for the Democrats is that the anti-Lieberman insurgents go far beyond simply opposing Mr Bush’s faulty rationale for the war, his dishonest argumentation for it and his incompetent execution of it. Many of them appear not to take the wider, global battle against Islamic fanaticism seriously at all. They see Iraq purely as a symptom of
Mr Bush’s cynical and politicised response to September 11 2001 – as opposed to a tragic misstep in a bigger conflict. This view indicates a fundamental misapprehension of the problem of terrorism. Politically, it points to perpetual Democratic defeat.

We know this because we have been here before. The Lamont-Lieberman battle has been filled with echoes and parallels from the Vietnam era. Democratic reformers and anti-establishment insurgents were not wrong about that conflict, either. Vietnam, too, was a terrible mistake for the US. But like Iraq, Vietnam was a badly chosen battlefield in a larger conflict with totalitarianism that America had no choice but to pursue. In turning on the stalwarts of the cold war era, such as Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, anti-war insurgents called into question the Democratic party’s commitment to challenging Communist expansion. The party’s Vietnam-era drift away from issues of national security and defence – 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 opposed the Vietnam war into the arms of Richard Nixon.

As with any election, there were various contributing factors that have little to do with any grand message. Mr Lieberman can be cloying and sanctimonious. Connecticut is an uncharacteristically liberal state. The primary was held in August, when many voters are away on vacation. But the echoes for Democrats are present nonetheless. In 1972, the party repudiated its flawed cold warriors and nominated a naïve anti-war idealist named George McGovern. It was not Mr McGovern’s opposition to Vietnam per se that caused him to lose 49 states, but rather his tendency toward isolationism and ambivalence about the use of American power in general. In a similar way, this week’s Connecticut primary points to the growing dominance within the Democratic party of people unmoved by the fight against global jihad. Richard Nixon’s preferred antagonists were fellow-travelling bluebloods and hippie demonstrators. Today’s Republicans face a different cast: callow media entrepreneurs such as Mr Lamont and an electronic counterculture of enraged bloggers. Yet the underlying political dynamic is not altogether different.

Whether Democrats can avoid playing the Vietnam video again depends on their ability to project military and diplomatic toughness in place of the elitism and anti-war purity represented in 2004 by the failed presidential candidate Howard Dean and now by Mr Lamont. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner for 2008, is trying to walk this difficult line, supporting the war in principle while becoming increasingly strident in her criticism of its execution. As the congressional elections approach, many Republican candidates are fleeing Mr Bush’s embrace because of his Iraq-induced unpopularity. But Mr Lamont’s victory points to a way in which Mr Bush’s disastrous war could turn into an even bigger liability for the Democrats.

The writer is editor of


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