Thursday, January 25, 2007
Can We Win This Time?
Rick Perlstein has two very important articles running right now that everyone should read. I would really love it if our Democratic representatives, especially, would read them, so if any of you have some extra time on your hands and would like to forward the articles to your Democratic congressperson and Senators, you would be doing a public service.
Democrats do not understand their own history and because of that they are allowing certain GOP myths to govern their decisions about Iraq. Perlstein's articles vividly describe how the history of Vietnam has been distorted, how it was done, who did it and why the Democrats find themselves battling fake ghosts instead of riding on the backs of real ones.
First Perlstein writes in Salon about how the congress brought the Vietnam war to an end and exactly how they did it. He outlines several important lessons:
1: "Forthright questioning of a mistaken war by prominent legislators can utterly transform the public debate, pushing it in directions no one thought it was prepared to go."
2: "Congress horning in on war powers scares the bejesus out of presidents."
3: "Presidents, arrogant men, lie. And yet the media, loath to undermine the authority of the commander in chief, trusts them. Today's congressional war critics have to be ready for that. They have to do what Congress immediately did next, in 1970: It grasped the nettle, at the president's moment of maximum vulnerability, and turned public opinion radically against the war, and threw the president far, far back on his heel."
And perhaps the most important lesson in this moment:
Grass-roots activism works. The Democratic presidential front-runner back then, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, afraid of being branded a radical, had originally proposed instead a nonbinding sense-of-the-Senate resolution recommending "effort" toward the withdrawal of American forces within 18 months. He found himself caught up in a swarm: the greatest popular lobbying campaign ever. Haverford College, which was not atypical, saw 90 percent of its student body and 57 percent of its faculty come to Washington to demonstrate for McGovern-Hatfield. A half-hour TV special in which congressmen argued for the bill was underwritten by 60,000 separate 50-cent contributions. The proposal received the largest volume of mail in Senate history. Muskie withdrew his own bill, and became the 19th cosponsor of McGovern-Hatfield.
Muskie's sense-of-the-Senate resolution was the wrong thing to do -- just as Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Joe Biden's sense-of-the-Senate resolution, cosponsored with Republican Chuck Hagel, is the wrong thing to do. Congressional doves, by uniting around a strong offensive -- eschewing triangulation -- weakened the president. McGovern-Hatfield did not pass in 1970. But the campaign for it helped make 1971 President Nixon's worst political year (until, that is, Congress' bold action starting in 1973 to investigate Watergate). By that January, 73 percent of Americans supported the reintroduced McGovern-Hatfield amendment.
John Stennis, D-Miss., Nixon's most important congressional supporter, now announced he "totally rejected the concept ... that the President has certain powers as Commander in Chief which enable him to extensively commit major forces to combat without Congressional consent." In April the six leading Democratic presidential contenders went on TV and, one by one, called for the president to set a date for withdrawal. (One of them, future neoconservative hero Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, differed only in that he said Nixon should not announce the date publicly.)
This was a marvelous offensive move: It threw the responsibility for the war where the commander in chief claimed it belonged -- with himself -- and framed subsequent congressional attempts to set a date a reaction to presidential inaction and the carnage it brought. When the second McGovern-Hatfield amendment went down 55-42 in June, it once more established a left flank -- allowing Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to pass a softer amendment to require withdrawal nine months after all American prisoners of war were released. Senate doves, having dared the fight, were doing quite well in this game of inches.
They also, incidentally, did extremely well in the 1972 election.
The current presidential hopeful club is afraid because they think they are going to be "McGovern's." But they also forget that the reason Nixon resigned was because his massive game of dirty tricks in the 1972 election were exposed in Watergate. His 1972 landslide was hardly won on the merits --- a fact that was proven by the fact that the Democrats even gained a Senate seat in that election. McGovern was the wrong presidential candidate (and let's not forget, Nixon's personal choice, which is why he destroyed Muskie) but the anti-war agenda was a winner --- practically, morally and politically.
We can likewise expect a similarly nasty presidential campaign against whomever the Democrats nominate in 2008. But we can also assume that he or she won't be as naive and unqualified to win as McGovern; one hopes the days in which liberals fantasized that the electorate would react to the meanness of Republicans by reflexively embracing the nicest Democrat are well and truly past. What we also should anticipate, as well, is the possibility that the Republicans will run as Nixon did in 1968 and 1972: as the more trustworthy guarantor of peace. Ten days before the 1972 election, Henry Kissinger went on TV to announce, "It is obvious that a war that has been raging for 10 years is drawing to a conclusion ... We believe peace is at hand." McGovern-Hatfield having ultimately failed twice, its supporters were never able to claim credit for ending the war. That ceded the ground to Nixon, who was able to claim the credit for himself instead. He never would have been able to do that if he had been forced to veto legislation to end the war.
I highlighted that line above because it's the single thing I fear the most. I don't believe that after all these years of vicious conservatism that most liberal activists are that naive. But I do believe that all this beltway babble about bipartisanship is designed to make the media and then the electorate believe that the only way a Democrat can win is by being the most passionless bowl of lukewarm water. (Listen to our very good friend Frank Luntz's advice --- he's always got our best interests at heart, right?)
And I worry greatly that as a result the man people will look to to lead us out of the quagmire will be the war hero John McCain. He can be McGovern without the hippies, Nixon without the slush fund, a hawk who supported the war but by 2008 will have reluctantly decided that he needs to step in to end it. With a secret plan, no doubt.
One has to wonder how we got to the point where even anti-war politicians who were around at the time don't know about their own successes, or if they do, cannot acknowledge them. That's where Perlstein's other article comes comes in.
It seems that the myth of the congress "abandoning the troops" and thus leading to American defeat came from our bestest bipartisan hero, Gerry Ford:
There is a popular fantasy that liberals in Congress, somehow, at least metaphorically, abandoned American troops in Vietnam--and that, if liberals had their way, they'd do it again in Iraq. This notion was nurtured in the bosom of popular culture--as when Sylvester Stallone, in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), sent back to the jungles of Vietnam by his old commander, plaintively asks, "Sir, do we get to win this time?" But it survives even in elite discourse--as when Nixon's former defense secretary, Melvin Laird, wrote--in a Foreign Affairs article called "Iraq: learning the lessons of vietnam"--that "the United States had not lost when we withdrew in 1973."
Early in 1974, Nixon requested a support package for the South Vietnamese that included $474 million in emergency military aid. The Senate Armed Services Committee balked and approved about half. A liberal coup? Hardly. One of the critics was Senator Barry Goldwater. "We can scratch South Vietnam," he said. "It is imminent that South Vietnam is going to fall into the hands of North Vietnam." The House turned down the president's emergency aid request 177 to 154; the majority included 50 Republicans. They were only, as I wrote in The New Republic ("The Unrealist," November 6, 2006), honoring what Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger privately believed. They had gladly negotiated their peace deal under the assumption that South Vietnam would fall when the United States left. What would it have cost to keep South Vietnam in existence without an American military presence? The Pentagon, in 1973, estimated $1.4 billion even for an "austere program." Nixon and Kissinger were glad for the $700 million South Vietnam eventually got (including a couple hundred million for military aid), because their intention was merely to prop up Saigon for a "decent interval" until the American public forgot about the problem. By 1974, Kissinger pointed out, "no one will give a damn."
Apparently, they didn't tell Gerald Ford. He addressed the nation in April of 1975, eight months after becoming president, and implored Congress for $722 million in military aid. The speech was overwhelmingly and universally unpopular--the kind of thing that made Ford seem such a joke to the nation at the time. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called it "blundering." Seventy-eight percent of the public was against any further military aid; Republicans like James McClure of Idaho and Harry Bellmon of Oklahoma opposed the appropriation. Republican dove Mark Hatfield said, "I am appalled that a man would continue in such a bankrupt policy"--and Democratic hawk Scoop Jackson said, "I oppose it. I don't know of any on the Democratic side who will support it." The Senate vote against it was 61 to 32.
Leading up to the vote, however, Saint Gerald made extraordinary claims--saying that "just a relatively small additional commitment" to Vietnam (compared with the $150 billion already spent there) could "have met any military challenges." With it, "this whole tragedy"--the imminent fall of Saigon--"could have been eliminated."
So much for the Pentagon's claim that $1.4 billion would be an "austere program." So much for Nixon and Kissinger's belief that "South Vietnam probably can never even survive anyway." Ford's miraculous $722 million somehow became enshrined in public memory as the margin that assured American dishonor. As Laird put it in that Foreign Affairs essay, "[W]e grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. ... We saved a mere $297 million a year and in the process doomed South Vietnam, which had been ably fighting the war without our troops since 1973."
It is that little piece of mythic propaganda that has our current politicans turning themselves into pretzels over using the power of the purse to stop this war. It's a testament to the ongoing success of the conservative movement's potent disinformation machine.
But Democrats need to stop battling these ghosts at least long enough to look at how the anti-war movement actually operated and how the congress used wily legislative positioning to both reflect the popular will and move the president toward it.
The public memory of congressional votes on Vietnam from 1970 through 1975 is almost hallucinogenically jumbled. Republican propagandists rely on the confusion. This slender reed of a myth--that congressional liberals are responsible for the fall of South Vietnam--conflates the failed 1970-1971 votes to end the war in South Vietnam, and the overwhelmingly popular (and, on Nixon and Kissinger's terms, strategically irrelevant) vote to limit military aid to South Vietnam. It is but a short leap for a public less informed than Laird to reach the Rambo conclusion: that this was just the last in a comprehensive train of abuses--exclusively Democratic and liberal--that kept us from "winning" in Vietnam. And that, adding in the mythology about prisoners of war in Vietnam, American troops were, roughly speaking, "abandoned" there."
It requires some filthy lies to sustain. But the fact that a sad old man is allowed to propound some of them in the foreign policy establishment's journal of record shows how successful it remains. And the fact that the front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination seems to take it as second nature that she has to defend herself against them shows it, too. Stop it now. No responsible American politician has ever cut funding an American troop needed to fight while he or she was in the field. No responsible American politician ever would. Limiting the number of troops in the theater of operations is not cutting funding for American troops. Neither, of course, is withdrawing them "over the horizon." Nothing's getting stabbed in the back here except reason.
Word. But that would be the standard conservative M.O. for the last decade or so.
I'm loathe to ever agree with David Brooks about anything but I'm very afraid that he may have been right when he said (about another issue):
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Legislating is a terribly difficult skill, and I don't think too many people in Congress have it right now. Lyndon Johnson obviously had it. It is incredibly difficult, incredibly complicated...And that will involve the sort of gamesmanship and insider playing and a set of skills of how to negotiate a deal that -- I think a lot of those skills have been lost in the last 20 years. I'm not sure many people have them on Capitol Hill of either party.
The only good news in that is that the president is no Johnson or Nixon so maybe it evens out.
One other thing I think is worth mentioning. As Perlstein points out in both articles, the country had turned against the war in huge numbers by the early 70's. The funding votes were bipartisan with even stalwarts like Goldwater signing on. But there were other things happening that continued to roil the country --- the counter-culture and leftist extremism. The Republicans managed to mix all that social angst into one big anti-Democratic stew that rebounded very badly on McGovern (who, as Perlstein points out, was a very bad candidate) and confused the political history of the era to this day.
But today there are no Weathermen or SLA's out there talking revolution. The main fronts in the culture war are located on the right, not on the left. It is a different day, even if those who lived through Vietnam are as muddled by the myths that sprang up later as anyone who came behind.
Whether any of us like it or not, that era is defining the present one. So, it behooves our Democratic representatives to at least decontruct this stuff for themselves so they can deal effectively with the war and wield their power as a congressional majority most effectively. To do that they need to read these two articles by the historian who has spent the last few years immersed in the politics of the period --- a man who wasn't even born until the late 60's and has no axe to grind. He has something important to tell them.
Project Vote Smart has all the contact information you need, including staff members. if you are so inclined to send these articles along, please do.
Update: Young people, educate yourselves. Seriously. It's important.
digby 1/25/2007 02:30:00 PM