Events have suddenly and unexpectedly handed the Democratic Party an opportunity to defeat George W. Bush in 2004. His main justifications for his war in Iraq (existence of weapons of mass destruction, connections with Al Qaeda) have collapsed, while the war itself intensifies. At home, his tax cuts have sent deficits out of control and jobs are disappearing at a gallop. Each of these conditions seems likely to be either chronic or permanent: The prospect of finding actual weapons of mass destruction, though conceivable, has dimmed to the vanishing point; the cost in blood and treasure of the occupation seems likely to increase; the deficit is likely to remain high or get higher. On other issues–healthcare, the environment, education–the public trusts Democrats more than it does the President. His poll numbers have fallen, from the high sixties and mid-seventies a month or two ago to the mid-fifties today.
But it’s one thing for Bush to fail, another for the Democrats to succeed. Debate within the party is sharpening. The questions for the antiwar wing of the party are especially acute. In a winner-take-all electoral system like ours, anyone who holds views that are outside the mainstream is faced with an obvious and inescapable dilemma: Should one vote for a candidate one agrees with wholeheartedly but seems likely to lose the election or vote for a candidate one doesn’t much care for but seems likely to win? Which is worse, a noble defeat or an empty victory?
I can give myself as an example. I opposed the war in Iraq before it was launched and now regard it as a mounting disaster, with the worst yet to come. But according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 69 percent of the public still think the war was worth it. Obviously, I’m out of step with the public. The candidate who best reflects my views is Dennis Kucinich. He not only opposed–and still opposes–the war; he wants to cut the Pentagon budget and shift the direction of American foreign policy toward peace and cooperation with the rest of the world. Second best from my standpoint is Howard Dean, who also opposed the war but now wants the United States to stay the course and keep Pentagon spending at present levels. Dean, as everyone knows, has been gaining support and appears to have a real chance to win the nomination. So, for me, Kucinich would be the more principled choice, Dean the more pragmatic choice. Yet Dean’s views on the war, too, are outside mainstream opinion and could doom him in the general election. The cautionary example usually given is George McGovern, who rightly opposed the war in Vietnam in 1972 but lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide. Ever since, the Democratic Party has been running away from “McGovernism.”
Other candidates propose to dive deliberately and immediately into the mainstream. One is Joseph Lieberman. In his words, the party must “go right up the middle.” He says anyone who (like Dean) “was opposed to the war against Saddam, who has called for the repeal of all of the Bush tax cuts…could lead the Democratic Party into the political wilderness.” Lieberman himself probably believes that the war was right, and that full repeal of the tax cuts would be wrong, but in this appeal he is clearly asking those of us who disagree with him to forget our beliefs and support him on purely pragmatic grounds. “The middle,” of course, is, of mathematical necessity, the place that any candidate must be in if he is to win. And it’s easier to move to the mainstream than to move the mainstream to you. (On the other hand, selling your principles for power doesn’t always work. Quite often there are no buyers for the tarnished goods. President Clinton was admittedly a master of the art; but Lieberman doesn’t seem to have the knack. You do not get to the middle by trumpeting “I am in the middle.” You do it by saying things people in the middle like to hear. Claims to be in the middle are inside baseball, not the game itself. When candidates step up to the plate, they should swing at the pitch, not give commentaries on their batting technique.)
As it happens, McGovern, not merely a historical figure but a living person, and a thoughtful and articulate one at that, has jumped into the discussion. Calling the warnings against McGovernism “political baloney,” he comments that although in 1972 he won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, “no war could have continued long after that election.” He is suggesting that although the movement against the Vietnam War, of which his campaign was a powerful expression, never put a President in office, it nevertheless forced an end to the war. His point is that political influence can be exerted in more than one way: “Give me a presidential candidate who speaks the truth as he sees it, and I’ll show you a candidate whose campaign, win or lose, will be good for the nation.”
Other episodes in American history teach a similar lesson. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he had the support of both Houses of Congress, including a majority of Republicans. But the politically acute President saw that the triumph had an immense future electoral cost attached. “I think we just gave the South to the Republicans,” he commented. And indeed, in years to come the GOP, following the “Southern strategy” adopted by the same Richard Nixon who defeated McGovern, won the South from the Democrats, laying the basis for successes in the next several elections. And so even as civil rights was winning substantively, it lost politically. The public accepted the message but rejected the messengers, as it would also do with McGovern. Yet the victory was real: The nation was changed for the better. The national holiday born of the movement is Martin Luther King Day, not Richard Milhous Nixon Day. There will never be a Richard Milhous Nixon Day. Neither will there probably be a George McGovern Day, but posterity will honor him.
These episodes do not necessarily teach Democrats whom to vote for in 2004, but they do suggest some lessons. Victory does not come through the ballot box alone. It sometimes comes by circuitous paths. Electoral politics should be played to win, yet changing hearts and minds can at times be as important as changing the President. McGovern is right. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of speaking the truth.