The Sheehan Movement

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In June, I ventured a prediction: “A Eugene McCarthy will appear soon to pressure and challenge Hillary Clinton in 2008, if Hillary does not convert herself into an antiwar candidate …”

Observing the Cindy Sheehan protest, I updated the prediction just last week: “September could see the coalescing of an antiwar movement that … divides (the) Democratic Party …” And so it has come to pass.

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” Gene McCarthy emerged in the person of Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. Monday, the top headline in The Washington Post read, “Democrats Split Over Position on Iraq War.” The opening paragraph:

“Democrats say a longstanding rift in the party over the Iraq war has grown increasingly raw in recent days, as stay-the-course elected leaders who voted for the war three years ago confront rising impatience from activists and strategists who want to challenge President Bush aggressively to withdraw troops.”

In the long run, the Democratic Party stands to lose far more from this war than a GOP whose president led us into it. How can that be? How can a war that will go down in history as “Bush’s War” end up dividing Democrats and gravely damaging their party?

First, there is the Democratic complicity in taking America into a war in which some of them never believed. In October 2002, when the war drums were beating and Bush was pawing the ground to take down Saddam, Sens. Clinton, Biden, Edwards, Kerry and Daschle voted for the war. It is thus their war, as well as Bush’s war.

Some voted their interests, not their consciences. They did it to get the war issue, which was working for the Republicans in 2002, behind them.

They failed in their duty to do due diligence before transferring the war power the Constitution invested in Congress to President Bush. Like the Enron and WorldCom boards of directors, they failed to monitor the executive over whom they had oversight authority.

If Pentagon preparations for the war were deficient, why did the Democratic senators, who chaired all the relevant committees, fail to review the postwar plans of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith?

More dangerous for the Democrats is that the growing split in their party is along the same fault line as the old Vietnam fissure.

In 1964, only Sens. Gruening of Alaska and Morse of Oregon voted against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing war. But by 1967, Sen. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was hectoring Secretary of State Rusk, a revolt had broken out in Democratic leadership councils over the war, and antiwar teach-ins and demonstrations had been escalating for years.

The reason Democrats must worry most today is that the antiwar movement taking shape is virulently anti-Bush; it is lodged, by and large, inside their party; it is passionate and intolerant; it has given new life to the Howard Deaniacs who went missing after the Iowa caucuses; and it will turn on any leader who does not voice its convictions.

Cindy Sheehan has sympathizers in Middle America, but to the Left she is “Mother Sheehan.”

Consider Hillary’s predicament. Today, she is taking the same cautious position on Iraq that Richard Nixon took in the fall of 1968 on Vietnam. She is saying she supports the war and the troops, but the war has been mismanaged and America needs new leadership.

No risk there. Hillary’s problem is she is three years away from 2008, the antiwar movement increasingly looks on her as a collaborator in “Bush’s War,” and Democrats like Feingold are going to give these antiwar militants the rhetoric and stances they demand. Hillary’s most rabid followers will depart if she does not leave Bush’s side — to lead them.

This surging antiwar movement will not permit moderates to get away with a stay-the-course, we-support-the-troops position. They will demand a timetable for withdrawal and rally to the candidate who offers one, just as antiwar Democrats rallied to Gene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern in 1968.

The Democrats’ dilemma is hellish. If this war ends successfully, Republicans get the credit. If it ends badly, Bush will be gone, but antiwar Democrats will be blamed for having cut and run, for losing the war and for the disastrous consequences in the Persian Gulf and Arab world.

And if there are terror attacks on U.S. soil, Americans may not demand that we get out of Iraq, but that we smash the terrorists and insurgents inside Iraq, to whom the antiwar movement will be accused of giving aid and comfort.

The London bombings did not weaken Tony Blair, they strengthened him. And the history of America’s wars is that wartime presidents win, unless — like Truman and Johnson — they quit. Then, they are succeeded by the more hawkish of the candidates the nation is offered.

Even in unpopular wars, the antiwar party is not necessarily the most rewarding place to be — politically speaking.

Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail] is co-founder and editor of The American Conservative. He is also the author of seven books, including Where the Right Went Wrong, and A Republic Not An Empire.

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