Politics & Policy

Will Vietnam Cost the Democrats the White House — Again?

Selling defeat is not a path to victory.

A year after the American troop surge in Iraq began, its success is clear, even to Newsweek, the Washington Post, and Rep. John Murtha. As Wesley Morgan details in the current issue of National Review, violence is way down, American troop levels are decreasing, tribal leaders are casting their lot with America, and a tattered al-Qaeda is on the run. Yet most leading Democrats sound like they haven’t heard the news.

On the anniversary of the surge, Harry Reid wrote that “as President Bush continues to cling stubbornly to his flawed strategy, Al Qaeda only grows stronger.” After Bush’s State of the Union Address last week, Hillary Clinton said, “President Bush is not satisfied with failure after failure in Iraq; he wants to bind the next president to his failed strategy . . .,” while Barack Obama‘s assessment was: “Tonight we heard President Bush say that the surge in Iraq is working, when we know that’s just not true.” During Thursday night’s debate at the Kodak theater, conservative radio host Michael Graham asked in frustration, “Do these two U.S. senators have any idea what’s actually happening in Iraq?”

Are they simply clueless? Maybe, though you have to suspect that they do actually know the surge is working. Unpatriotic? Call it what you will; there’s nothing like amplifying every failure and minimizing every success to show the troops in the field which side you’re rooting for. But as the French say, “It’s worse than a crime; it’s a blunder.” Insisting that America is losing in Iraq is not only wrong factually and morally; it’s poor strategy.

You can win an election on bad news if it’s obvious, but not if you have to sell the voters on it first. Hope is a powerful emotion, and given the choice between a candidate who says we’re doomed and one who says we’re winning, most voters will prefer to believe the latter, particularly when the facts bear him out. Why choose to feel dismal? Moreover, suppose you think that America’s mission in Iraq is imperiled but not lost. Which side are you going to vote for — the one that wants to fight things out or the one that wants to quit? The doomsaying strategy works only on voters who are naturally inclined to despair, and thankfully, they make up a small part of the electorate.

In any event, it’s unnecessary. History shows that it’s entirely possible to win a war and then lose an election. Bush 41 is the most recent example (Hillary’s husband could tell her about that), but there are many others. After World War II, voters in both Britain and America strongly repudiated the parties that had been in power. In World War I, American troops surged into Europe and changed a static slaughterhouse into an Allied victory that was all but complete by the fall of 1918. On the eve of that year’s congressional election, Woodrow Wilson appealed to voters to support his fellow Democrats. The result: The Senate changed from 54-42 Democratic to 49-47 Republican, and the House from a narrow Democratic majority to a 50-seat Republican edge. You can even go all the way back to John Adams. For most of his single term as president, he fought an undeclared naval war with French terrorists; then in September 1800 he triumphantly announced a peace treaty. The nation rewarded Adams by tossing him out of office in favor of Thomas Jefferson.

Turning the page and moving on sounds much better to voters than switching horses in midstream, especially when the stated plan is to turn the horse around and retreat. So why are the Democrats so stuck on denying the facts? Why can’t they admit the surge’s success while criticizing the wrong turns that preceded it, and fight the election on other issues? The answer lies in the lingering illness that the party has been unable to shake for 40 years: McGovern’s Disease, popularly known as Vietnam Syndrome.

In its simplest form, VS causes its sufferers to view every military action through the template of the Vietnam War. In its advanced stages, they take this tendency a step further, seeing everything that occurs in politics and government as a rerun of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s like that game where you cast your friends as characters on Gilligan’s Island. Victims of VS remember that Richard Nixon won in 1968 by suggesting that the war was going badly, even though the situation had stabilized by that summer. In 1972 he was reelected in a landslide after Henry Kissinger said, “Peace is at hand”; three years later, helicopters were picking Americans off Saigon rooftops. Since, in the VS mindset, everything that happens at any time is simply 1968 coming around again on the guitar, this means the only way to win a wartime election is to out-trick Tricky Dick by denying any positive military news.

Of course, 1968 was an extraordinarily turbulent year, and four years later George McGovern was breathtakingly inept, and there hasn’t been a draft in decades, and casualties are way below the level of Vietnam. Besides the fact that they’re both wars, there’s no particularly close parallel between Vietnam and Iraq. But that won’t stop Hillary and Barack from vying to see who can make it look more like a catastrophe — and when they’re talking to a mostly Democratic audience, that makes sense. If they’re smart, though, once the primaries end, the Democrats will shake off their VS, stop pitching defeatism, and say they were behind the surge all the way (Hillary would have an easier time pulling this off, which is another reason for Republicans to root against her). But most of all, the Democrats need to find some new problems to complain about (which won’t be too difficult), preferably ones that voters won’t have to be laboriously convinced of first.

 – Fred Schwarz is a deputy managing editor of National Review.


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