Politics & Policy

Dnc DéJà Vu

Democrats should learn from their 1864 predecessors.

Another convention, another Democratic-party peace platform.

In August 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, the Democratic party adopted a platform that attacked the Republican incumbent for:

four years of failure to restore the union by the experiment of war, during which, under the pretense of military necessity or war power higher than the Constitution, the Constitution itself has been disregarded in every part, and public liberty and private right alike trodden down, and the material prosperity of the country essentially impaired.

In other words, the war was a mistake. Our constitutional rights have suffered, and it costs too much. We should have tried diplomacy.

The party nominated a popular war hero to reassure voters. Public opinion seemed heavily antiwar, and Democratic prospects looked bright.

All this led Lincoln to reflect, gloomily,

It seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so cooperate with the president elect, as to save the union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.

Are we facing such a moment again? Would John Kerry’s election be grounded on such a successful example of disloyal opposition that neither he nor any successor will be able to wage war effectively?

A lot is at stake in this election. Can a 50-50 nation wage war? Can this postmodern, risk-averse, culture-war-riven country sustain any long-term military effort? How strong can America be when the opposition party refuses to be a loyal opposition? What can we all expect from a world in which the U.S. president fears to use U.S. power?

The party has learned something since 1864. The current platform offers little of substance on the war, preferring to treat it as a matter of personal choice on which we can agree to disagree. How such a war policy would work out in practice is anyone’s guess. There appears to be an awfully heavy reliance on the French cavalry (and other U.N. heavyweights) riding to our rescue.

If so, American power in the world would effectively be caged and neutered. For those who regard us as the greatest threat to world peace–Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Jimmy Carter, Kim Jong-Il–this will come as good news.

Now, this does not mean that anyone concerned about the credibility of U.S. power must automatically vote for the incumbent in wartime. But it means that the opposition bears a heavy burden, and the Democratic party (with a few Liebermanite exceptions) has so far borne it uncertainly. The credibility of U.S. power is very much an open question, and the burden of reassurance lies with John Kerry. So far, Kerry has not met that burden.

He certainly could have done so. He would only have had to demonstrate that he was unwilling to use the war as a political stick with which to beat the incumbent. He would have had to show some spark of Vandenbergism. (Arthur Vandenberg was a Republican senator of the ’30s and ’40s who set aside his strong partisanship and visceral dislike of Roosevelt in order to build a bipartisan front during WWII, and to maintain it during the Cold War). He put it this way:

To me, “bipartisan foreign policy” means a mutual effort, under our indispensable two-party system, to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world…. In a word, it simply seeks national security ahead of partisan advantage.

Kerry had his best chance at a Vandenberg moment when the Senate voted on the $87 billion appropriation for war costs. He whiffed it.

There are about three months until the election. That’s fewer than 100 days for John Kerry to assure us that he doesn’t represent retreat from American power–that his election would not mean the retirement of the world’s only cop, and a free pass for the world’s most dangerous desperadoes.

Counting down.

“Hans Moleman” is a lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.


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