Why Democrats Won’t Stop the War

David Sirota

The nationwide opposition to the Iraq War is based on a host of populist impulses. Some people hate it because they think lives are being sacrificed to pursue the oil industry’s agenda. Some despise it because, without a military draft, the U.S. casualties – 4,000-plus and counting – are disproportionately working-class kids. Still others abhor the war because it drains scarce resources away from pressing priorities at home. And yet, despite this groundswell of antiwar sentiment, the campaign to stop the war is adrift and dysfunctional. 

On the one side are groups like United for Peace and Justice, that head what progressive activist Matt Stoller has deemed The Protest Industry” – a clan made up of those who decided that participation in the system was immoral” because they have seen compromise’ many times before and think they know where it leads.”

At Protest Industry rallies against the war in Iraq, you will find no effort to hone a basic message. You will see a sea of signs demanding (1) the end to a war with Iran that hasn’t happened, (2) the impeachment of President George W. Bush, (3) the arrest of Vice President Dick Cheney, (4) the elimination of the death penalty, or (5) the overthrow of the U.S. government by Maoists who reason that the world can’t wait to drive out the Bush regime.” 

These demonstrations are boisterous but ephemeral displays whose chaos and lack of message reinforce a self-defeating fringe image. 

On the other side of the antiwar movement is a group of organizations and apparatchiks that have launched an operation called Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI) – a coalition of mainly Washington, D.C.-based advocacy groups, pooling cash and staff for a major, multimillion dollar national campaign to oppose the president’s surge’ proposal to escalate the war in Iraq,” as its website says.

Within the uprising against the war in Iraq, AAEI and its allies are the professional” side of the antiwar effort. Consider them The Players.

The Players imagine that the war will end not after a massive investment in long-term, on-the-ground local organizing against war, but by the short-term coordination of a few elite actors – political consultants, donors, politicians and maybe one or two organization heads – in front of a map of media markets and congressional districts.

The Players make their moves with campaign contributions, TV spots and PR campaigns – the conventional weapons in a media war – and they are playing their game in Washington for Washington. In contrast to the Protest Industry, they believe the only way to effect change is to play an inside game.

Hollywood for ugly people

Media coverage is currency in the nation’s capital. There, celebrities are people like Washington Post columnist David Broder, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and Time magazine’s Joe Klein – people known to almost no one in the country at large. 

Within the Beltway, however, they are influential celebrities because they appear on obscure chat shows, from C-SPAN’s Washington Journal” to Fox News’ Special Report” to MSNBC’s Hardball.”

Our nation’s capital has become Hollywood for ugly people. 

Washington’s self-absorbed fetishization of tiny-audience TV shows might be funny – except that the Iraq War was largely started because of this closed-circuit media obsession.

In the march to war, neoconservatives, like The Weekly Standards William Kristol, staked out beachheads on Fox News sets, while so-called liberal hawks, like The New Republics former editor Peter Beinart, dug trenches in CNN studios. These pundits established support for the war as a criterion of political respectability and a mark of worthiness for media access. 

Now, out in the real world, beyond the confines of the TV studios, it’s all gone to shit – all of it. The American public – which was ambivalent about supporting the unilateral invasion – is now firmly opposed to continuing the conflict. 

Many of Washington’s pro-war TV celebrities” are trying to flee their previously televised warmongering. Klein of Time magazine, for instance, appeared on CNBC a month before the Iraq invasion to state, War may well be the right decision at this point – in fact, I think it probably is.” By 2007, he claimed with a straight face, I’ve been opposed to the Iraq War ever since 2002.”

In light of this, The Players believe that by funneling money into organizations like AAEI, pulling PR stunts and putting attack ads on television against pro-war legislators in Congress, they can make this antiwar uprising successful without organizing millions of Americans into a cohesive long-term movement. They believe, in short, that if a war can be started because of Washington’s obsession with television, it can be ended because of that same obsession.

Washington’s rules

Both the Protest Industry chanting on the Mall and The Players scheming in their downtown Washington offices are necessary parts of an effective antiwar uprising. The outraged rabble provides the boots on the ground that can pressure lawmakers in their local communities. And that popular ferment could be enhanced by a professional presence playing the Beltway’s media game. 

The crippling problem for The Players is the increasing difficulty of operating in Washington without being corrupted by it. As blogger Chris Bowers says, In Washington, D.C., for those who run the government, the public is quite distant and faceless.”

If the rules of Washington were written down, the first one would say: Anyone wishing to play its games has to sign up big-name political consultants who are perceived to have influence.” That buys you instant credibility with politicians and reporters there – those folks who write the stories, and appear on television and radio to talk about the state of play in Washington,” as the Washington Posts Chris Cillizza says. Like it or not, the opinions expressed by these people tend to set the parameters of the debate when an election year rolls around.”

As a Washington pundit, Cillizza’s analysis inflates his own importance. But as biased as he is – and as much as his statement reeks of elitism – inside the Beltway his self-aggrandizement is a religious doctrine that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

This poses a problem for even the best-intentioned advocacy organizations in D.C. The same consultants they need to hire to play this Washington game and to influence these people who set the parameters of the debate,” are often simultaneously paid by the very politicians who should be in their crosshairs. 

The result is that ideological organizations become fused to the partisan political structure they seek to pressure.

Hot Pocket politics

Take the leadership of AAEI. The group is guided by Hildebrand Tewes, a consulting firm named for its original partners, Steve Hildebrand and Paul Tewes – both longtime Democratic Party operatives. 

The firm is one of a new breed of companies that attempts to bring to uprising politics the ease of microwave TV dinners. Don’t feel like making dinner? Throw a Hot Pocket into the microwave. Don’t feel like doing the hard work of local organizing to build a sustaining, durable movement that lasts beyond the issue du jour? Put together a pile of money to hire a firm like Hildebrand Tewes and you can have your instant uprising” – one that provides about as much nutrition to your cause as microwaved junk food provides to your body. 

While the firm is supposedly leading an independent antiwar uprising by pressuring politicians in both parties, about half its employees – including the firm’s two principals – were staffers for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the re-election arm of the same Democratic U.S. senators that the antiwar uprising now needs to pressure to end the war.

But the conflict of interest only starts there. 

At the same time Hildebrand Tewes is working with AAEI, the firm is being paid by various Democratic politicians for its services – Democratic politicians who have a vested interest in avoiding attacks from the antiwar uprising. 

The consequences of such incestuous overlaps between party and uprising are best exemplified by Brad Woodhouse, the Hildebrand Tewes consultant leading AAEI. He came directly to Hildebrand Tewes after years as the DSCC’s chief spokesperson and a mouthpiece for Democratic candidates. This supposed antiwar champion is the same guy who, as a campaign staffer, bragged to newspapers just before the Iraq invasion that the Democratic U.S. candidate he was working for, Erskine Bowles (N.C.), was more pro-war than the Republican candidate. 

No one has been stronger in this race [than Bowles] in supporting President Bush in the war on terror and his efforts to affect a regime change in Iraq,” Woodhouse fulminated in the Charlotte Observer in September 2002

Woodhouse is no anomaly. His history closely mimics how many war-supporting politicians suddenly changed their positions when the political winds shifted. 

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), whose record on Iraq has been abysmal, has undergone an improbable transformation into an antiwar candidate. And former President Bill Clinton showed a special kind of retroactive courage when he declared last November that he had opposed the war from the beginning.” But it is the partisan conflicts of interest, not the hypocrisy, that pose the real problem.

You would think the central focus of any antiwar organization – whether inside Washington or out – would be on forcing Democrats to use their constitutional power to end the war to do just that: end the war. But you would be wrong.

Almost all of AAEI’s multimillion dollar national campaign” is being spent on TV ads or publicity stunts attacking pro-war Republican politicians up for reelection in 2008 – people like Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John Sununu (N.H.), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the minority leader who Woodhouse spent years attacking at the DSCC. 

These are Republicans who Democrats (and thus Democratic consulting firms like Hildebrand Tewes) want to defeat in order to retain control of the Senate, regardless of whether the war ends. 

Relatively few AAEI resources, by contrast, will be spent on ads attacking Democratic House and Senate lawmakers who have either repeatedly provided the critical votes to continue the war indefinitely, or who have refused to use all of Congress’s power to end the war.

Beyond its mission statement, AAEI does not even try to hide its partisan biases. In one classic display, Woodhouse used his AAEI position to defend Democrats when they refused to stop a war funding bill. 

We’re disappointed the war drags on with no end in sight,” he told Reuters in June of 2007, but realize Democratic leaders can only accomplish what they have the votes for.”

No mention of Democrats’ ability to use their majority to vote down war spending bills or to stop any funding bills from moving forward so as to cut off money for the war.

If you believe this ultrapartisan allocation of resources has nothing to do with the fact that the people guiding the spending decisions are former employees of – and are still being paid by – Democratic politicians, then I’m sure George W. Bush has another war to sell you. 

As antiwar Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) has said, the battle to end the war is us versus them” – not in terms of Republican versus Democrat, but in terms of the uprising versus the Washington inside crowd that sets the parameters of this debate.”

In February 2007, Feingold told reporters, The Washington consultants – especially those that were part of the previous Democratic administration – come into a room with Democratic congressional leadership and tell them, Look, if you propose a timeline or you try to cut off the funding, the Republicans will tear you apart.’ ” But, Feingold continued, The power structure in Washington [is] desperately trying to figure out how to explain why they made one of the biggest mistakes in the history of our country. And that’s why you gotta go right at them.”

But you can’t go right at them” if your uprising is led by a tightly knit consultant class that has dual loyalties and has been part of the problem from the outset.

The McGovern Fable

Conservatives have extrapolated President Nixon’s silent majority” demonization of Sen. George McGovern and cultural critique of the anti-Vietnam War movement into a fantasy that supposedly explains every Republican victory in the last 30 years.

This McGovern Fable posits that the Left’s open confrontation with the Democratic Party may have helped end the Vietnam War, but it also resulted in the 1972 presidential nomination of McGovern, whose landslide loss in the general election supposedly gave Democrats a national security gap” in public opinion polls. According to the Fable, this gap is singularly responsible for giving America 20 out of 28 years of Republican presidents, and came about not because Nixon ran a smarter race or because McGovern’s campaign tactically stumbled, but because McGovern opposed the Vietnam War.

But as scholar Mark Schmitt has noted, the McGovern Fable is a sham. 

The real reason the Vietnam War divided and discredited Democrats and splintered the liberal consensus was because – let’s not be afraid to admit it – Democrats started that war,” Schmitt wrote on his blog in 2006. Opposition to the war didn’t unify or define the party, it divided it. Nixon won the 1968 election because [Hubert] Humphrey was associated with the war [and] couldn’t split with [Lyndon B. Johnson].”

In fact, Schmitt pointed out that in the 1974 mid-term election following that 1972 campaign, the 75 Democrats who won congressional seats were overwhelmingly antiwar.

Few debate that making the war into a campaign issue was critical to the Democrats winning Congress in 2006. However, the consensus in Washington is that all the American casualties and the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq would be acceptable had Bush just been a better military strategist. Some Democratic lawmakers seem to be saying this overtly. 

With no ideologically antiwar voice in Washington, these Democrats are demanding that their party become ideologically pro-war” – that is in favor of violent conflicts as a standing principle, as long as the violence is managed properly.

If we become the antiwar party, that’s not beneficial to Democrats in 2008,” Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) told reporters in July 2007, despite polls showing that two-thirds of Americans want the White House to start withdrawing troops from Iraq. Said Davis: The kind of pro-war Democrat that we ought to be [is the one that supports] the war that we fight wisely, the ones that we engage in wisely.”

Among The Players inside Establishment Washington, nobody – not AAEI, not the much-vaunted liberal” think tanks – is making the opposite case, that Democrats have a moral and (as the insurgent campaign of Connecticut’s Ned Lamont showed) political imperative to be the antiwar party, not just the sort-of anti-Iraq War party. 

The Players have opposed the escalation of the war in Iraq, but there has been no antiwar drumbeat – no larger argument made against wars as a concept or against the danger of the growing military-industrial complex. This means the next time a president wants to start an absurdly stupid war, he or she faces no ongoing antiwar uprising and just needs to do what Bush didn’t do – dot the i”s, cross the t”s and follow proper procedure. Put another way, favoring a narrow criticism of just the Iraq War over an attack on Washington’s more general prioritization of war as a foreign policy tool has laid the groundwork for neoconservatives’ next harebrained military fantasy.

As media critic Glenn Greenwald wrote at Salon​.com in August 2007, The Grand Beltway Consensus, one that encompasses both parties, is that War is how we rule the world. … The only debates allowed are how many [wars] we should fight, where we should fight them, and how wisely’ we prosecute them.”

Say what you will about the anti-Cheney zealots, the pro-impeachment activists and other assorted Protest Industry followers, they may be utterly disorganized and lack real-world political strategies, but at least their activism is about more than a sporting event. They aren’t just demonstrating to help one set of politicians defeat another set of politicians. And as importantly, they don’t dream of stopping just one war because that’s what is considered politically expedient. 

They dream of changing society’s long-term outlook on war itself.

Making them work for us

Like an exotic species at the zoo, true campaign junkies exhibit the same special markings: bags under eyes, graying hair, half-shaven beards (among the males) and expressions of permanent fatigue, like they could fall asleep at any moment because they need to catch up on shut-eye from 25 years of late-night envelope-stuffing sessions. 

Steve Rosenthal exhibits all of these telltale signs.

Rosenthal heads They Work for Us, a group whose mission is to pressure elected Democrats to uphold the uprising’s antiwar and economic agenda.

There’s a lot of swirling mass communications going on right now,” he says between gulps of coffee as we eat breakfast at a hotel restaurant in downtown D.C. But it really isn’t personalized or organized, and it isn’t particularly effective.”

He is a rare hybrid of an insider and an uprising guy who got his start (like many 50-ish movement activists) first as a volunteer for George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, then as staffer for Sen. Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid. Today, Rosenthal is fed up with the substitution of Washington games for real grassroots organizing.

It’s the same thing I used to say about mail when we did a lot of mail in the labor movement,” he says. What happened over the years was that mail became a lazy way to communicate with people. It’s much easier to hire a mail vendor and send out a lot of mail to union members than it is to organize people going workplace to workplace and setting up systems to deliver flyers and organize weekend walks. That’s really hard stuff, and people now avoid doing it because it’s hard.”

He fills me in on all the different Democratic incumbents his group is looking at trying to unseat in primaries, and how he wants to make them sweat and bleed and raise money so they have to think differently about things.”

But beneath the strategy talk, he is worried. He fears that even on an issue as pressing as the war, partisan loyalties are going to trump everything. That’s not just because of the intertwined Washington culture or the McGovern Fable, he says, but because a lot of the people in the uprising today don’t really comprehend how power works.

What many people don’t understand is that these politicians carry more water for you as a result of being frightened,” he says. In other words, what are these politicians going to do in the face of a primary challenge? Say, Go fuck you guys because you might come after me’? No, it’s going to be the other way around – they’ll try to appease us by being better, which is the point.”

But, the flip side is also true. 

If Democratic office holders know that no functional antiwar uprising is ready to punish them for their war support, then they will just preserve the status quo – regardless of the TV ads against Republicans; regardless of the Protest Industry theatrics at rallies; regardless of The Players’ appearances on obscure shows like Hardball”; and – worst of all – regardless of American troops dying in Iraq.

(Editor’s note: This article was adapted from The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington,” which was published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc., this month.)

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David Sirota is an awardwinning investigative journalist and an In These Times senior editor. He served as speech writer for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign. Follow him on Twitter @davidsirota.
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