AWOL: The anti-war Democratic presidential contender
Are America’s national interests best served by our stance on the Ukraine-Russia war? It is striking that within the Democratic Party, with its long tradition of anti-war activism, there are no prominent voices raising this question.
President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the influence of the military industrial complex on war policy. But he would likely fear speaking out today, even though the doomsday clock now says America’s stance on the Ukraine-Russian war has helped put all of us in the greatest peril ever. All the NATO countries disagree. As do the major newspaper editorial boards. Polls say about 90 percent of Democrats back continuing to give aid to Ukraine in its war against Russia.
As a consequence, no potential Democratic presidential contender dares to oppose the policy. Such public opposition would be labeled disloyal, even pro-Russian.
Yet history says the American people are being ill served by this chloroform of conformity. This is true based on an unimpeachable source: the American people.
In 1952, Eisenhower won the presidency by promising to change Democratic President Harry Truman’s Korean War policy. Even after Truman’s disastrous showing in the New Hampshire primary, Democrats stuck with the status quo. Ike won in a landslide.
In 1968, when little known Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) announced his intention to challenge Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War policy, he met universal derision from the party establishment. They declared him a certain loser, indeed a flake.
A few weeks after a disastrous showing in the New Hampshire primary, LBJ quit the race. Democrats nominated Johnson war apologist Vice President Hubert Humphrey to the loud opposition of antiwar activists. Humphrey seemed a certain loser until Johnson suddenly agreed with his critics. LBJ said his emissaries would attend formal peace negotiations. Polls soon had the race statistically tied. But Humphrey lost a close election to Richard Nixon.
In 1992, polls suggested support from usually loyal Democratic voters for Republican President George H.W. Bush’s Gulf war policy made him unbeatable for reelection. All the big-name Democratic hopefuls declined to run. But little-known Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton rejected the poll results. He won the 1992 contest by the biggest electoral margin of any Democratic challenger since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) originally backed Republican President George W. Bush’s Iraq War stance. But little-known former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.) launched the longest long shot antiwar presidential candidacy in four decades. He seemed poised to win until Kerry cleverly morphed from hawk to dove. Kerry won the nomination but lost to Bush in the closest reelection bid since 1916.
In 2008 Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) seemed on a fool’s mission challenging Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) for the Democratic nomination. But the underdog Illinoisian had opposed the Iraq War while Clinton supported Bush’s war resolution. Had she been willing to admit a mistake, she almost certainly would have stopped Obama’s campaign in its tracks. But she refused. He won.
Obama’s general election opponent had won the GOP nomination in part due to his support for Bush’s Iraq war policy. Obama won with the biggest Democratic margin of any challenger since FDR.
In 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces had been assumed an easy winner. The West therefore gave Ukraine the obligatory lip service. Russia had nuclear weapons, and the U.S. had no interest in poking the Russian bear. But the Russian army proved grossly overrated. Ukraine forces, led by formerly derided ex-comedian President Volodymyr Zelensky, demonstrated unexpected prowess.
However, without the West’s money and arms, Ukraine would have eventually lost. For nearly a year, America and its allies have funded the war against Russia. This put Putin in an increasingly difficult position both on the battlefield and at home.
Russia uses increasingly more powerful weapons in turn requiring the West to send ever more powerful weaponry to the Ukrainians. The end game is unclear. Peace must eventually come. But it will likely require the United States to make a commitment of hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild Ukraine.
The 2024 election cycle has only just begun. But the prospects are not good that we will have a serious presidential candidate who dares to disagree with current war policy. Never before has the chloroform of conformity been inhaled so deeply.
As has been famously observed, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends.
We can assume that any treaty will include America agreeing to foot the biggest part of the reconstruction costs. This amount may far exceed the funds needed to rebuild the schools for all the poor children in America. It may exceed the funds required to provide training for all the workers who will be put out of jobs by artificial intelligence.
We have a $31.5 trillion national debt, in good measure due to our military spending and forgiving trillions in debt as an incentive for other countries to forgo military solutions to problems.
It is not disloyal to either party or to the country to question a dangerous situation no one in America would have wanted a year ago. Asking the necessary questions is the opposite of disloyalty; it is the height of patriotism.
Paul Goldman is a Richmond attorney and former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
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