Commentary Magazine


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November Surprise

In spite of what the polls supposedly tell us, I strongly suspect that the Democrats may already have blown the 2008 election. Unlike the late Senator Aiken of Vermont, who proposed that we declare victory and get out of Vietnam, the Democrats want us to declare defeat and get out of Iraq. This, they imagine, is what the American people were demanding in the congressional election of 2006.

But it seems far more likely that the message of that election was not “Get out,” but rather “Win, or get out.” In any case, the position the Democrats are now taking can only have the effect of revivifying and reinforcing the sense of them as weak on national security. And this was the very factor that led to the ignominious defeat of their presidential candidate, George McGovern, in 1972, when they also misread the public temper by paying too much attention to the left wing of their party.

Furthermore, reading the first volume of Bill Bennett’s America: The Last Best Hope, I am reminded that the American distrust of defeatist political parties goes back beyond 1972—all the way back, in fact, to the War of 1812. Like Iraq, it was an unpopular war that its Federalist-party opponents called “Mr. Madison’s war,” just as the Democrats today call Iraq “Bush’s war.” In addition, just as the Democrats today keep threatening to cut off funds for Iraq, a number of state governments controlled by the Federalists “refused to supply militia troops for the war effort.” The end result, says Bennett, was that the Federalists would “never again seriously contend for the presidency.”

Then, too, there was the Mexican war, into which a Democratic President (the “mendacious Polk,” as he was described by his Whig opponents) led the country in 1846. The Whigs, Bennett writes, were mindful of the damage done to the Federalists by their position on the War of 1812, and therefore they “made sure to vote to supply the troops.” Even so, the Whigs did themselves no political good by acting as though it was Polk’s war and not the nation’s. Although this was not the only or even the main reason they eventually followed the Federalists onto the ash heap of American political history, it surely played a part.

I am not predicting that the Democrats of today will suffer the same fate as the Federalists and the Whigs did. But I do think that they are in the process of ensuring their defeat in the next presidential election. In many respects, of course, the people of this country are very different from their forebears of 1812 and 1846. But I suspect that most of us are not all that different from them in how we view politicians who conspicuously fail to root for American troops fighting in the field, and who seem to think that they can get away with it by sticking the responsibility for the war on the sitting president of the other party. In 1972, this deeply ingrained American attitude still had enough life in it to give Richard Nixon, unpopular though he was, an overwhelming victory against George McGovern. Unless the American leopard has changed his spots since then, the Democrats are in for a very big surprise in November 2008.