Since the Democrats won control of Congress last fall, they've been besieged with warnings against acting too aggressively on Iraq. Such "moves carry clear risks for a party that suffered politically for pushing to end an unpopular war in Vietnam," suggested the Washington Post in January. And now that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are pushing to bring the troops home next year, the admonitions will probably grow. Just before the Senate narrowly voted down a Democratic resolution calling for withdrawal in 2008, a G.O.P. staff member crowed that "the public won't go for it." Haven't the Democrats learned anything from Vietnam?
Actually, they have. Despite today's conventional wisdom, Democrats didn't suffer in the 1970s for opposing Vietnam. And they're even less likely to pay a political price for trying to end the war in Iraq.
In 1973 the Senate voted to suspend funding for American military operations in Vietnam; the next year, Congress voted to cut off aid to the embattled government in Saigon. Some of today's commentators argue that those votes devastated the Democratic Party in the mid-1970s. But if so, the Democrats had a strange way of showing it. They won the 1974 midterm elections in a landslide. Two years later, Jimmy Carter grabbed the White House. To be sure, Watergate played a major role in those victories. But if the party's efforts to end the war weren't the primary reason for its success, they certainly didn't hurt.
It's true that in 1972, antiwar crusader George McGovern suffered one of the biggest political wallopings in American history, losing 49 states to Richard Nixon. Surely then, Democrats suffered for opposing Vietnam? Actually, no. People forget that in 1972 Nixon ran on a peace platform too. In his convention speech, he boasted that he had ended the draft, withdrawn American troops from ground combat, pursued a negotiated settlement with North Vietnam and reduced U.S. casualties 98%. The fall was marked by feverish diplomacy between Washington and Hanoi, culminating in Henry Kissinger's declaration, less than two weeks before the election, that "peace is at hand."
That's not to say Nixon and McGovern held identical views. While Nixon promised to end the war in Vietnam, McGovern promised to end the cold war itself. He called for cutting the defense budget 37% and withdrawing troops not only from South Vietnam but also from South Korea. "The war against communism is over," he declared. "We have to settle down and live with them." That allowed Nixon to turn the 1972 race into a choice between isolationism and peace with honor. Seizing upon McGovern's support for amnesty for draft dodgers and his comments comparing America to the Nazis for the bombing of Vietnam, Nixon also linked the Democrats to antiwar radicals who disrespected America and its troops.
While many conservatives see anti-Iraq Democrats as McGovern's spawn, they're a very different breed. Pelosi and Reid aren't against the war on terrorism; their Iraq-withdrawal bill actually increases funding for Afghanistan. Today's antiwar movement doesn't raise a middle finger at the Pentagon. In fact, Democratic leaders say they're defending an American military ravaged by too many deployments and too little funding. And if today's Democrats aren't McGovern, today's Republicans aren't Nixon. George W. Bush isn't winding the Iraq war down; he's ratcheting it up, and the G.O.P. presidential front runners are following along. In 1972, polls showed that more Americans thought Nixon rather than McGovern would end the war. It's virtually impossible to imagine voters saying something similar about a Clinton-McCain or Obama-Giuliani race in 2008.
The real danger for Democrats in the Iraq debate isn't that they'll oppose the war too aggressively; it's that they won't oppose it aggressively enough. In 1972, Nixon attacked McGovern as a liberal extremist, which wasn't exactly wrong. But the Democratic Party has become more moderate since the Clinton years, and in the past two presidential elections the G.O.P. has attacked Al Gore and John Kerry less as ideological radicals than as soulless opportunists, weather vanes willing to say whatever it took to win. As pollster Ruy Teixeira has noted, surveys in recent years show Democrats trailing the G.O.P. by more than 20 points when it comes to "know[ing] what they stand for."
If the public doesn't like what you stand for, then you should probably adjust your views. But if the public doesn't believe you stand for anything, then you had better show them that you do. That's the problem the Democratic Party faces today. And the solution is to end the war in Iraq. *
Beinart is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations