David Corn writes The Loyal Opposition twice a month for TomPaine.com. Corn is also the Washington editor of The Nation and is the author of The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). Read his blog at http://www.davidcorn.com.
Last week , Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was giving a speech on "Women Leaders" before a crowd of thousands at Brown University when a fellow interrupted her and shouted, "Is it leadership to support the war?" Other hecklers joined in, and Clinton pressed on with her prepared remarks. She noted that "leadership on a broad, national, public level—it means standing for what you believe and inspiring others to do the same."
It may be wrong to equate leadership with a particular position on the war. But the protesters did raise a fair point about Sen. Clinton. She has certainly not taken a leadership stance in the ongoing national discourse on the war in Iraq. In fact, she has avoided the matter—talking about the war little and eschewing media appearances where she will likely be asked about the war. She has said that American troops should not stay in Iraq for an open-ended amount of time but they should not withdraw immediately. So she is for the status quo—as long as it does not last too long. That's not much of a position—and certainly not an act of inspiring leadership.
Her fudging is understandable. George W. Bush's mess in Iraq does not lend itself to easy policy solutions. And there is the matter of the 2008 presidential sweepstakes. Clinton does not want to be accused by the right of being a weak-kneed, defeatist Democrat who doesn't have the you-know-what to defend the nation. Nor does she want to alienate Democratic base-voters, many of whom want out of Bush's war. So she ducks and covers, putting off the day when she will have to share a specific notion on the mess in Iraq.
And that is why the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest could become something of a replay of 1968.
Four decades ago, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey campaigned as a reluctant supporter of a war that was becoming unpopular—especially among Democrats. (Humphrey entered the race after President Lyndon Johnson surprisingly announced on March 31, 1968, that he would not seek a second presidential term.) Eugene McCarthy, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, was the fierce anti-war candidate in the contest. It was two weeks after McCarthy came close to beating incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary—gathering 42 percent to LBJ's 49 percent—that Johnson withdrew. And Senator Robert Kennedy, who entered the race after the New Hampshire primary, expressed doubts about Vietnam but in a more measured (or vacillating) fashion than McCarthy.
What does this have to do with today's premature speculation about the contours of the coming Democratic presidential contest?
It's not difficult to find corollaries to these leading Democratic players of 1968 in the developing 2008 Democratic field. HRC can inherit the part of HHH—not a fan of the war, but not against it. The modern-day McCarthy is Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin (which is next door to Minnesota). Auditioning for the Bobby Kennedy role is former Sen. (and failed veep candidate) John Edwards.
In 1968, McCarthy doggedly chased after LBJ and Humphrey on the war. In doing so, he created an opening for Kennedy, a more moderate—or, as McCarthy partisans claimed, a more opportunistic—candidate. Kennedy beat McCarthy in the climactic California primary on June 4, but was shot in the early morning hours of June 5. He died the next day. Humphrey, who did not compete in most of the primaries, bagged the nomination at the disastrous Chicago convention, thanks to delegates supplied by party bosses.
In 2008, we could see Feingold run as the unequivocal, get-out-now, anti-war candidate against Clinton, a quasi-supporter of the war. And if Feingold taps into Democratic dissatisfaction with the war (assuming the war is still ongoing), he might be able to catch a wave—or beat up Clinton enough to boost the prospects of another Democrat who is opposed to the war but not considered a renegade. Enter John Edwards; he's more critical of the war than Clinton but less so than Feingold.
Feingold has a specific proposal regarding Iraq: withdraw all US troops by the (flexible) deadline of December 31, 2006. He has lambasted his fellow Democrats for being too "timid" in opposing Bush on Iraq. At the end of March, he returned from a trip to Iraq and said the security situation there was "significantly worse" than a year ago and that the insurgency is not diminishing. Feingold has also been pushing to censure Bush for the warrantless wiretapping he approved.
Edwards has been saying that the United States should withdraw 40,000 troops to send a clear signal to Iraqis and the region that Iraq and its neighbors have to start finding their own solutions quickly. He does not call for specific dates and deadlines.
There are, obviously, distinctions between 1968 and now. Hillary Clinton is not a commander-in-chief in charge of a tragic war (or the No. 2). There is yet no sizeable antiwar movement, as there was in 1968, for Feingold to use as a base. Edwards is not the vacillator that Kennedy was—although like Kennedy, he does raise poverty as an issue. But it sure seems possible that the Iraq war—if Bush does not achieve his complete victory there in the next two years—has the potential to dominate the Democratic contest and to split the party, as the Vietnam war did in 1968.
For now, the party is repressing those potential differences. Look at the Democrats’ recently released "Real Security" platform. Iraq is covered on page three of the three-page statement. And the plan offers little: "ensure" 2006 is a year of "significant transition" to full Iraqi sovereignty and of "responsible redeployment of U.S. forces"; "insist" that Iraqis make political compromises to unite their country and defeat the insurgency; "strongly encourage" allies and other nations to play a "constructive role." That's not much. The plan says nothing about what should be done if the problem in Iraq is not a self-contained insurgency but a civil war—or something close to it. Should the United States keep 130,000 troops in the middle of a sectarian conflict? Should it pick a side?
Clinton is straddling, not leading, and much of the leadership of her party is essentially doing the same. That might help Democrats in the coming congressional elections by providing on-the-ropes Republicans with little to attack. Then again, it might not. But the conflicts and dilemmas posed by the Iraq war will probably persist. If so, Democrats could find that their biggest challenge is not the Republicans but themselves.