In the crowd that gathered outside the Catonsville, Maryland, public library in August to support antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan’s demand that President Bush listen to her plea for an end to the US occupation of Iraq, the distinguished gentleman in “CEO casual” dress was instantly recognizable. Women holding BRING OUR CHILDREN HOME banners nodded, men with STOP THE WAR signs waved and eventually one person after another edged over to shake the hand of Kweisi Mfume, the former NAACP president who is seeking an open Senate seat from Maryland. They were thanking Mfume for being something that is still all too rare–a prominent Democrat who is willing to stand unapologetically with the movement to bring troops home from a war that has gone horribly awry. Mfume smiled and told his well-wishers, “This is the right place to be for the right reasons.”
Mfume will get no argument from the party faithful on that point. There is a growing sense that any Democrat who wants to be a leader of what is supposed to be America’s opposition party–and of the nation in which it is competing for power–must be front and center in the antiwar movement. Of course, this is not yet the case. As Mfume told the crowd in Catonsville, there are now “two voices in the Democratic Party” when it comes to Iraq. Such Democratic luminaries as senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and minority leader Harry Reid continue to echo Bush Administration spin about how the United States must “stay the course.” But the antiwar voice is growing louder. Loud enough, perhaps, to force the Democratic leadership to offer something more than an echo–or, if need be, to replace that leadership with Democrats who can present a genuine alternative to the neoconservative national security policies that have made America anything but secure.
“Too many of the leading figures in the Democratic Party made a terrible mistake in 2002 and 2004: They allowed the White House to intimidate them into not opposing an unpopular and misguided war,” says Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, a maverick Democrat who has emerged as one of the party’s most thoughtful dissenters. “If we don’t want to make the same mistake in 2006 and 2008, we have to be moving now to break the taboo that says we cannot talk about ending our involvement in Iraq and bringing our troops home.”
Indeed, if the summer of 2005 taught us anything, it is that the intellectually and morally proper course also happens to be the politically practical one. The country is ready for a bolder critique of the President and his war. The Maryland vigil that Mfume joined was just one of 1,600 held in small towns and big cities across America in support of Sheehan–preludes to a September 24 rally in Washington that is expected to draw tens of thousands. Seven state Democratic parties, so far, have called for withdrawing US troops from Iraq. And in the early stages of 2006 Senate races, Democratic primary contenders like Mfume and Rhode Island’s Matt Brown have made antiwar messages central to their candidacies.
The old excuse that Democrats can be politically viable only by supporting the course chosen by a popular President in a time of peril has less validity than ever. What sense does it make to cede the debate to Bush and his Republican allies when, according to recent Gallup polls, 51 percent of Americans say the Bush Administration deliberately misled the public about the reasons for going to war? Or when 54 percent say the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq? Or when 58 percent say that no matter how long US troops remain in Iraq, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government there?
“The bottom line,” says campaign strategist Steve Cobble, who helped guide the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign and is closely aligned with the group Progressive Democrats of America, “is that a Democratic Party that tries to fuzz its message on the war loses.”