Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Have I Got Something Wrong Here?

In an e-mail exchange on the parallels (or not) of Afghanistan to Vietnam, it occurred to me that Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw from running for a second term as President because of his escalation of the Vietnam War, not because of his peacenik tendencies. It was those peaceniks, Nixon and Kissinger, who ended the war, although it is possible to spin their actions as though they bombed the enemy into peace.

The narrative for a very long time, however, seems to have been that it's the Democrats who must show some national security spine to prove that they're not wimpy peaceniks. I think that it may have been WWII bomber pilot George McGovern's failed campaign for president where the "wimpy peacenik" label originated. But the hawks who won carried out his program. And Nixon ran on a platform of having a secret program to end the war.

The Democratic Party lost its southern segregationist wing, the Dixiecrats, to the Republican Party at about the same time, but the issue was Lyndon Johnson's pressing for, and getting, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended the Dixiecrats' social program. You might say it was the first shot in the culture wars.

Am I missing something here, or have the Democrats allowed themselves to be driven by a very faulty narrative, that they have to be more warlike to get votes?

The lesson that President Obama might learn for Afghanistan are that the public does not like to see an unpopular war escalated. For the Democrats, the Dixiecrats are long gone and are now a problem for the Republican Party. A withdrawal from Afghanistan will produce a certain amount of the usual sorts of shouting, but the rest of the country seems to be paying less and less attention to that loud, very much a minority, Southern faction.


Andy said...

Interesting post. I think, though, that the political situation today is very much different from what Johnson faced. To begin with, the cost of today's wars are borne by a small minority of volunteers. The American people are affected hardly at all since there is no draft. So opposition to the war is very different and I think it is much more shallow today than it was then. After all, there's no risk today that your son, brother or friend is going to get drafted.

Secondly, I think there is an anti-war faction within the Democratic party. It's hard for the Democrats to get away from that, just as it's hard for the GoP to get away from parts of their base that are outside the mainstream.

So I think there is a real political risk to Obama through a full withdrawal, especially since Afghanistan was such a central campaign theme and opposition to the war is shallow compared to Vietnam.

joel hanes said...

I think that it may have been WWII bomber pilot George McGovern's failed campaign for president where the "wimpy peacenik" label originated.

My recollection is that it started four years earlier, with Eugene McCarthy's failed bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination.