Vietnam as Politics, Part I: The Democrats


The political dialogue surrounding matters military is fundamentally skewed by the fixations of both political parties. The Democrats and the Republicans, largely because of the corrosive domestic effects of Vietnam, have adopted delusional or ineffective methods of dealing with the Pentagon, with Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the larger issues of America’s military. Those delusions have fed into the situation in Iraq, helping to create that ongoing debacle, and will continue to cripple U.S. military efforts in the future. One party has descended into fantasy; the other, renunciation.

The Democrats

The Democratic party settled on renunciation.

The party, which had come up with the most effective military policy of the 20th century (the “containment” policy of the Cold War), was undone by Vietnam. South East Asia split the party between the doves, typified by George McGovern and the hawks, typified by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson. In 1968, it led to violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago. The nomination of George McGovern for President in 1972 was a victory for the dovish wing of the Democratic party, but his shellacking by Richard Nixon in the fall showed clearly that that triumph would not translate to a national election. Jimmy Carter, in 1976, was a compromise. As a graduate of the Naval Academy, with an impressive naval career, Carter had strong links to the military and to military affairs. Having said that, he came to office promising to refocus American foreign and military policy away from the Cold War and towards the issue of human rights. He thus bridged the gap between the doves and the hawks.

Carter’s disastrous Presidency, marked in military terms by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis, undid Carter’s military credibility, however, and Ronald Reagan was able to use the issue successfully against him. Ever since the Reagan presidency, the Democrats have essentially avoided the issue, largely renouncing any interest in military matters as military matters. They have been willing to emphasize military affairs when they fit into larger foci such as economic and social issues: veterans’ benefits, wage and salary issues, or the status of women or gays in the military. But what they have not done is focus on explicitly military issues of strategy, procurement, and operations. The Democrats have largely ceded policy making in those areas to the Republicans or (when a Democratic President was in office) the military itself. This—along with the defection of the southern states from the Democratic to Republican party, which carried along with it states with a disproportionate military presence—has meant that the cadre of senior Democrats with military expertise has shrunk substantially over the last two decades.

Thus Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, had served in the Army for two years, but had no special military competency or interest. His credentials as Governor of Massachusetts were impressive but entirely non-martial. William Jefferson Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 1988, had even less experience in or with the military than Dukakis. Al Gore was slightly different, in that he had served in Vietnam and had some interest in military affairs. Nonetheless, Gore’s campaign did not emphasize national security issues in any effective way. The ongoing problem for the Democrats, however, was that military issues were critically important in Presidential elections. Dukakis lost soundly to George H.W. Bush in 1988, Clinton scraped a victory over Bush in 1992, aided by the end of the Cold War and the divided vote created by H. Ross Perot’s candidacy, and Gore lost to Bush in 2000. None of these elections were solely defined by military issues, but military issues weighed heavily in all of them.

Such weight only grew after 9/11. The nomination of John Kerry in 2004 seemed an attempt to overcome the Democratic military deficit by nominating a decorated war hero. In addition, the recruitment of retired soldiers like Wes Clark was an effort to raise the volume of the Party’s voice on national security. But Kerry, like almost all senior Democrats, was handicapped by the decades-long avoidance of military issues and had severe troubles articulating a convincing military vision for the United States. Clark, like most senior military men, was unused to the give and take of politicking and proved to be an ineffective campaigner, though in 2006 veterans at lower electoral levels—Jim Webb in Virginia, Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania—did have success.

The 2006 elections did not necessarily offer the Democrats a new way forward. The horrendous mishandling of Iraq neutralized the Republican advantage on national security and the shaky economy gave priority to what had been a traditional Democratic strength. The result was a Democratic landslide that handed the House and Senate back to the party. But the election did not require nor did it offer a way for the Democrats to make up their deficits on national security. “Iraq bad” was a useful electoral message in 2006 but not a coherent long-term message or policy. Thus, the Democrats entered the primary campaigning season for the 2008 Presidential election in a similar situation to where they had been in 2004; looking for a candidate who gave them credibility on national security or one who overcame that deficit in other ways.

(Next: The Republicans)