When you hear folks say that history inevitably repeats itself, you probably figure they are referring to the distant past. When very recent events repeat themselves, it evokes a different parable – the one about how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Welcome to the Iraq debate, circa 2008.
Recall that two years ago, a little-known businessman named Ned Lamont mounted an anti-war primary challenge to Connecticut’s warmongering senator, Joe Lieberman. Lamont’s campaign, which I worked for, was controversial. It was just four years after many congressional Democrats voted for the war, and the Washington Post was reporting that Speaker Nancy Pelosi “said that Democrats should not seek a unified position on an exit strategy in Iraq.” Though polls showed the public against the conflict, Democratic strategists insisted that opposing the war “could backfire on the party.”
When Lamont won the primary, Washington’s chatter machine predicted doom. The hawkish New Republic bemoaned a “Ned Scare” that supposedly meant election-losing “McGovernism has returned.” Slate magazine wondered, “Will the Democratic Party repeat the political mistakes of the Vietnam era?”
Luckily for Democrats, their candidates ignored the “experts” and started echoing Lamont’s message. After the 2006 election, polls confirmed that these anti-war campaigns were precisely what won Democrats control of Congress.
Lamont, though he lost his own general election, showed that representing the public’s anti-war sentiment and ignoring Washington’s self-appointed gurus wins national elections. And as the current campaign unfolds, the Lamont Lesson is resurfacing.
Today’s political landscape has not changed from 2006. America still opposes the conflict, and Democrats not only refuse to use their congressional power to cut off war funding, but have opted to insult the public’s intelligence. Indeed, at the same time the party is airing ads attacking John McCain for wanting to continue the war, Democrats in Congress are championing a $165 billion military spending bill that indefinitely prolongs the occupation. The party’s leaders are not debating strategies to end the war, but “the kind of pro-war Democrat[s] that we ought to be,” as Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., said a few months ago.
Now, instead of one candidate crashing the party, there are more than 50. That’s how many are backing A Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq. Initially launched by Darcy Burner, a Seattle-area congressional candidate, this plan has been endorsed by the likes of retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who served in Iraq, and Lawrence Korb, former assistant defense secretary under President Reagan. It supports an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
As heady talk of “bottom up” politics fills the air, Democrats face a full-blown anti-war uprising – one that is beginning to act like a mature movement in putting its agenda before party.
Since the Iraq invasion, many anti-war groups inside the Beltway have made polite excuses for pro-war Democratic politicians, insisting that anti-war criticism be aimed primarily at Republicans. This is Washington’s unspoken corruption – the kind that sees issue-based groups put their partisan affinity and cocktail party friendships above their stated agendas.
But the anti-war uprising outside of D.C. is done playing nice. Congressional candidates are now giving anti-war orders to their party, rather than taking pro-war orders from the Wise Men of Washington – and the Responsible Plan is just the beginning. Anti-war primaries in Maryland and Iowa have been mounted against pro-war Democratic incumbents. Meanwhile, the uprising is bleeding into the gears of commerce, as dockworkers this month shut down ports to protest the war.
Military conflicts don’t end on their own, and they don’t end because of politicians, insiders and parties. They are forced to end by power-challenging mass movements. That is the principle behind the Lamont Lesson – and we’re lucky that lesson is again being taught.