TCS Daily

Politics in a Nation of Hawks

By James Pinkerton - December 16, 2003 12:00 AM

The Conventional Wisdom in Washington is that the capture of Saddam Hussein means that Howard Dean's presidential goose is cooked. And while it's always fun to go against the C.W., it's not always wise.

To be sure, Saddam's nabbing might not have changed the military situation in Iraq, but it's apparent that politics has changed here at home. The pundits are near-unanimous: Howard, you have a problem. The Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt declared, "The capture of Saddam Hussein is a shot in the arm politically for President Bush and poses a dicey dilemma" for the Democrats, particularly the ex-Vermont governor. CNN's Jeff Greenfield observed, "The first fallout . . . fell on Howard Dean's campaign. He was bounced from the cover of Newsweek magazine. His campaign manager, Joe Trippi, was bounced from ABC's 'This Week.'" And in first-in-the-nation Iowa, The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen opined, "Saddam Hussein's arrest hurts Howard Dean because it undermines the very premise of his candidacy, namely that the war in Iraq wasn't worthwhile."


The Hotline, the invaluable daily news summary, offered its own terse C.W. sum-up: "Last week, Dean was already the Dem nominee with an entire political press corps coming up with scenarios of how he beats Bush. Today, Dean's a sure-general election loser and might be vulnerable to losing the Dem nod."


But if Dean's in trouble, he's not acting as if he knows it. Given the news from Iraq, his "major" foreign policy speech, scheduled for Monday, was "major" only in the minds of himself and his supporters; he would have been well-advised to push his address back a few days, to let the Saddam news blow over a bit. But instead, defiant as always, he charged ahead: "The capture of Saddam has not made America safer . . . Let me be clear: My position on the war has not changed."


And he has the party faithful on his side. Indeed, a survey of Democratic "superdelegates" by The Los Angeles Times found that by a huge and increasing margin, these professional Dems support a candidate with a rejectionist approach to the Bush Doctrine. Such activists, all members of the Democratic National Committee, were asked which they preferred as their party's nominee next year, an anti-war Democrat or a pro-war Democrat. In November, the doves outnumbered the hawks, 56 percent to 29 percent. But this month, the doves were royally crushing the hawks, 58 percent to 13 percent. Can you spell "McGovernization"?


So the familiar equation -- Howard Dean in '04 = George McGovern in '72 -- deserves its place in the C.W.


From Perception of Morality to Anticipation of Victory


In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon won the White House in a three-way race with just 43.4 percent of the vote, edging out Democrat Hubert Humphrey by half-a-million votes from the more than 73 million cast. The Vietnam War was raging back then, of course, and the Democrats told themselves that if Humphrey had been just a little more dovish, he would have won. And although Nixon wound down the Vietnam War that he inherited, he didn't wind it down fast enough to suit Democratic activists. The activists' choice in 1972 was the dovish McGovern, who blew past more hawkish Democratic rivals to win the nomination. The McGovernites, as they were called, were absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause, and somehow that perception of morality became an anticipation of victory. But of course, McGovern was clobbered in November. Among the reasons: Nixon had managed to "Vietnamize" the war, so that by Election Day, the peacenik-y McGovern was mostly punching air; there weren't many troops to bring home, and there wasn't much American fighting to want to stop.


Today, Dean confronts a similar situation. Hardcore Democrats all think that George W. Bush either stole the White House or had it handed to him by a corruptly partisan Supreme Court. So going into '04, it helps to be angry, a la Dean. Moreover, it's a given, to such partisan minds, that Iraq is another Vietnam, and that pro-war Democrats are little better than Nixon-lovers -- oops, make that Bush-lovers. No wonder Dean is picking up endorsements from Democrats whose roots reach back to the McGovern campaign. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, was part of McGovern's "alternative" Illinois delegation to the '72 Democratic convention in Miami Beach that pushed aside the establishment delegation led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. McGovern lost Illinois in the general election, of course, but at least now the neo-McGovernite Dean enjoys Jackson's strong support.


And Dean has other assets, too. The headline in Sunday's New York Times reads, "Dean Formulates a Nuanced Approach to Foreign Policy"; one can't buy advertising like that. In the article, readers are assured that that the Vermonter "shows a fluency in discussing the world that is certainly beyond where Mr. Bush was four years ago." Even under the new McCain-Feingold law, such contributions don't have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission.


Yet while Dean has his strengths for the nomination, he is losing ground in the general election match-ups. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken before the Saddam capture showed Dean trailing Bush by 12 percentage points, 39-51. But a second poll taken on Sunday, after the news broke, showed Dean losing by 21 points, 31-52.


A Country of Hawks


And 'twas ever thus. This is a mostly hawkish country. Dovish candidates of both major parties -- George McClellan in 1864, William Jennings Bryan in 1900, Wendell Willkie in 1940, McGovern in '72 -- have all gone down to severe defeat. It's fair to say that in wartime American history, no anti-war candidate has ever won.


One potential Democratic candidate seems to understand this martial reality; she has handled herself brilliantly during the last year. The junior senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, voted for the Iraq war resolution in 2002. Ever since, she has kept up her support, even as she has chided Bush, from time to time, for failing to round up more international support. In other words, she's hedging and fudging, having it both ways, as all crafty politicians do.


But on Monday, in the midst of the we-got-Saddam euphoria, she knew that this was no time to appear to be anything but gracious. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she declared herself to be "thrilled" at Saddam's apprehension, adding, "We owe a debt of gratitude to the troops, to the president." Those aren't the words of someone who plans to run for president in '04.


But they are the words of an '08-er, a candidate who wants to make sure that past dovishness can't be used against her. And of course, for the gentlelady from New York to run in 2008, the Democrats have to lose in 2004. Which doesn't seem like much of a concern to her.

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