In 1966, barely two years after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution was passed by the House and Senate, a handful of intrepid candidates challenged pro–Vietnam War Democratic incumbents in party primaries. The most prominent of their number, Ramparts magazine editor Robert Scheer, took on California US Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, an otherwise liberal Democrat who refused to criticize Lyndon Johnson’s warmaking in southeast Asia.
Scheer won 45 percent of the vote in that year’s Democratic primary and went on to a distinguished career in journalism. But he also did something else. His campaign planted the seeds for a 1970 challenge to Cohelan by Ron Dellums, who dispatched the incumbent and went on to serve almost three decades in the House. Dellums was not the only antiwar challenger to defeat a Democratic incumbent that year. In New York, Bella Abzug upset seven-term incumbent Leonard Farbstein. In Massachusetts, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry and Father Robert Drinan, the dean of the Boston College Law School, both prepared campaigns against hawkish Democrat Phil Philbin, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Kerry stepped back and Drinan went on to beat the twenty-six-year incumbent in a September, 1970, Democratic primary.
The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam. But as in the late 1960s and 1970s, antiwar candidates have begun to prepare primary challenges to Democratic incumbents who supported the October 2002 “blank check” resolution authorizing George Bush to order a pre-emptive attack on Iraq. The most serious so far is that of Ro Khanna, a 27-year-old San Francisco attorney with an economics degree from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Yale, who is taking on twelve-term incumbent Tom Lantos in a heavily Democratic Bay Area district.
Lantos has a reasonably solid liberal record on domestic issues, and he generally wins high ratings from the AFL-CIO and groups such as Americans for Democratic Action. But it’s a different story on foreign-policy matters. Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, was one of the leading advocates in the House for the use-of-force resolution in 2002. He served as a pro-resolution floor manager and said it was his “privilege” to deliver eighty-one Democratic votes for the president. Last year, Lantos was a champion of the Bush Administration’s proposal to allocate another $87 billion to fund US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has, as well, been one of the House’s most consistent Democratic backers of the Patriot Act.
Khanna launched his challenge to Lantos in December, saying, “In March, Democrats in San Mateo County and San Francisco will have the opportunity to reject Bush’s flawed Iraq policy and his misguided war on our liberties, and to send someone to Congress who shares their own values.”
The question, then, was whether Khanna, a political newcomer, could mount a viable enough campaign against an entrenched incumbent to make the choice he promised a realistic option. Though Lantos remains the favorite going into Tuesday’s primary vote, Khanna has made a race of it. He has raised a respectable amount of money—close to $250,000 by mid-February—and attracted enough volunteers to run an energetic campaign that feels in the best sense like that of Howard Dean, whose presidential run Khanna supported.