Nixon in ’08?

Atrios asks whether the GOP nominee, whoever he is, will be against the Iraq War a year from now. Apparently Lawrence O’Donnell thinks this will happen. Atrios disagrees —

I don’t think there’s any way they can climb out of the rhetorical trap they’ve placed them selves in (surrender dates, defeatocrats, have to fight them there, etc…) given that George W. Bush won’t provide them with an opening for that.

O’Donnell’s comparison point was Nixon in 1968, but Nixon didn’t have President Bush sitting in office defending the war until the end, decrying any attempts to begin ending the war. And I don’t think Liebermanish “no one wants to end the war more than I do but we can’t…” crap is going to fly.

I think anything’s possible, including some big change in the entire Middle East/terrorism situation that renders the Iraq War issue moot. Assuming More of the Same over the next year, however, I am inclined to think Atrios is right. I don’t think the base is going to change its mind, so the candidates can’t radically change their current positions and get the nomination.

The political dynamics of 1968 were more complex, I think, than they are now. Remember, the Republican candidate, Nixon, was running against a Democrat’s war. As I remember it, by 1968 liberals generally had more misgivings about Vietnam than conservatives did. One of the reasons Johnson pushed combat troops into Vietnam was to appease the Right, so that they wouldn’t go after him for “losing Vietnam.” But the antiwar protesters hit the Dem convention, not the GOP convention, because it was Lyndon Johnson’s war. And as I’ve said in other posts, Nixon ran on a promise to end the war; in effect, he was the peace candidate.

But get this from Geoffrey Perret’s new book Commander in Chief. Setting the stage, so to speak: In March 1968 Johnson had announced he would not seek the Democratic Party nomination. In June 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated while campaigning for the nomination. Perret writes,

With RFK’s death, Johnson began to encourage a “Draft LBJ” movement.

With his support dropping to 35 percent of registered voters, that effort went nowhere. Even so, Johnson held an iron grip on the convention, which met amid tumultuous scenes in Chicago. There was so much boiling anger among the delegates that if he had appeared at the convention, Johnson might have split the Democratic Party and given the election to Richard Nixon. He stayed away, but nothing important would be decided without his approval.

Humphrey was chosen as the presidential candidate, but Johnson was never going to support him, because Humphrey wanted to run as the candidate who would bring an end to the war. He had long had doubts about the wisdom of fighting a war in Vietnam, and during his first year as Johnson’s vice president he had opposed escalation. That meant being frozen out from nearly all the important meetings on Vietnam and rarely being asked for his advice. The humiliation of the vice president was an open secret in Washington.

A thoroughly decent and intelligent man, Humphrey had found his limits, and so had Johnson. Humphrey came close to being a living, breathing, and slightly sad example of the stereotypical Farmer-Labor Party liberal from far-off Minnesota: plenty of principle, not enough spine.

Johnson could smell weakness as sharks can smell blood — in small traces even over long distances. Having humiliated and bullied Humphrey for more than three years, Johnson was a cobra to a mongoose during Humphrey’s campaign. Every hint of independent thinking on Vietnam brought a threat from above.

It began during the convention, when Johnson warned Humphrey, “The Vietnam plank will be mine — not yours.” Sure enough, the platform supported LBJ’s negotiating position: no end to the fighting and bombing until the North agrees to stop attacking the South.

A month or so after the convention, Johnson heard that Humphrey was working on a speech that would offer to stop the bombing indefinitely if the North promised to reduce — not stop, only limit — the flow of troops and weapons into South Vietnam. LBJ called Hubert to heel. Give that speech, he told Humphrey, and I will personally see to it that you lose Texas. At other times, he told Humphrey that he would make sure that the Democratic National Committee and the big party donors stopped financing Humphrey’s campaign. A large amount of money that ought to have gone to Humphrey’s campaign was withheld to the end.

With only a week to go, Humphrey finally put some distance between LBJ and himself over Vietnam. Humphrey’s poll numbers rose dramatically. Had he shown a little more independence only a week earlier, he would probably have won the 1968 election. He lost to Richard Nixon by half a million votes out of more than seventy-three million cast.

In that final week of campaigning, Nixon was holding a trump card. Anna Chennault, widow of a famous World War Ii airman, acted as Nixon’s intermediary. She assured [South Vietnamese President] Nguyen Van Thieu that if Nixon was elected president, he would provide the kind of unequivocal support that Humphrey would not. Four days before the election, Johnson was handed conclusive proof that Nixon was sabotaging the Paris talks by encouraging Thieu to spin things out.

This news would have won the election for Humphrey had Johnson stayed within the law, but he hadn’t. The evidence came from illegal wiretaps on the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington. Johnson telephoned Nixon and demanded to know if he was undermining the Paris talks. Of course not, said Nixon. Then he hung up the telephone and laughed. [Geoffrey Perret, Commander in Chief: How Truman, Johnson, and Bush Turned a Presidential Power into a Threat to America’s Future, pp. 284-285]

Thinking about this, it occurs to me that the 2008 GOP nominee might be in a position similar to Hubert Humphrey vis à vis Lyndon Johnson. Bush and Rove likely will still be in a position to jerk GOP chains. The nominee may well have to waltz with the Bushies as well as the base. It’s likely he’ll have very little room to maneuver away from the Bush position on Iraq, even if he is personally squeamish about the war.

But if the GOP nominee is Humphrey (roughly speaking; Humphrey was a good guy), does that mean the Dem will be Nixon? In other words, if a Democrat is elected, will he drag his feet as Nixon did to end the war? This is the position taken by Big Tent Democrat at TalkLeft.

I don’t expect whomever is elected President to end the Iraq Debacle for many years after 2008. After all, who wants to run for reelection having “lost Iraq?”

Of course they are ridiculous to fear being labelled as having lost Iraq, but fear it they will. They all fear what the Beltway Gasbags will say.

I’d like to think otherwise, but I’m not going to rule this out. (Clinton? Biden? Who knows what they’ll do.) However, I think it’s highly unlikely that a Dem president would escalate the war as Nixon did early in his first term. We’re going through the escalation phase now; we’re gong to be so over it by 2009. Nor can I imagine any Dem wanting to “stay the course.” I think it’s more likely the next Dem president will withdraw combat troops but leave “consultants” and special ops in place, and we may have to deal with that.

For that matter, it’s not impossible that ground troops will already be on their way out of Iraq before the next administration begins. This is a dynamic situation, and not all of it is under anyone’s control. Many things might happen we cannot anticipate.

8 thoughts on “Nixon in ’08?

  1. The Dems should take the line that the war was lost before it began because it was based on lies. They should stop the war because it is an illegal and immoral war and just stand tall with that issue. Bet Jimmy Carter could do it. What we need is a President who will do what is right for the country. Ending the war is right for the country. If none of the Democratic candidates are willing to do that, then this country is way lost. It should be pounded into the American people that the war is lost today; it was lost yesterday; it was lost at the beginning because the Republicans did not want to be honest with the American people. Isn’t there any politician any where with some guts to “do the right thing”??????? Or is the right thing, just too passe??????

  2. 15 dead this weekend. And 71 dead so far this month..On course for a new high. Maybe the numbers aren’t as high as in Vietnam, but the sense of hopelessness for success is much higher than during Vietnam. Bush Blew it..and the American public know he blew it. It’s time to stop chasing rainbows and come to grips with Bush’s failure in Iraq. My sense is that by election time we’ll be overtaken by reality. 70% say we’re on the wrong course

  3. Bonnie, you’re right..The war was born of lies and deceits and it will never gain legitimacy. Immoral and illegal will never be just and honorable. And the Bible says….”no weapon formed against me shall prosper”..Me being the truth.

    Bush is a flunkie and a stooge!

  4. The one caveat is if Hagel wins the GOP nomination. If non-lunatic Republicans decide they’ve had enough and try to take back their party, Hagel could win the nomination. The question is whether enough sane people are left in the GOP to do this, or if they’ve all shifted their registration to “independent”, as at least one of my friends has admitted doing.

    Who knows, the Republican party could marginalize themselves to such an extent than a 3rd party candidate might actually have a shot (Hagel/Bloomberg or whatever).

  5. Unfortunately macho/balls still sells.
    Defeatocrats/surrender monkeys is worth a lot at the polls.

    I hope the Dems are able to sell something like: Make war smarter!
    I think Hillary is inching up to this strategy

  6. A year from now, the nomination will likely be in the bag for both parties, so I don’t find it implausible that the Republican candidate might start moving toward a withdrawal rhetoric, especially if it’s anyone but Giuliani. He’s got to run on the war because it’s the only hope he has.

  7. I think what people are failing to see is that Bush can quite simply declare ‘victory’ by defining victory in his own terms. Anyone who points to the obvious signs of disaster and non-success will either be portrayed as “wanting defeat” or wanting our troops to stay longer than is needed. Something tells me ‘victory’ will come about just before the ’08 election. We’re already seeing Bushco saying that “only” 800 deaths a month in Iraq would be proof of the surge’s “success”. Gates has already said that Iraqis kicking us out could be construed as “victory”. Connect the dots.

  8. By next fall, the Republican candidate could say absolutely anything and get away with it, so long as they have someone like Hillary to hate! I don’t know why this is so confusing. Republicans equal Sheeple who do what they’re told.

    The problem with Iraq is that things are going to come to a head long before November 2008. Right now, Congress and the President are just punting the Iraq problem down the road a few months at a time.

    Bush is trying desparately to run out the clock so he can pass Iraq off to his successor. If it’s a boiling cauldron that explodes 15 minutes after his plane leaves for Texas he won’t care.

    But, Iraq won’t just stay still for the next 18 months. That’s far too long. Bush can’t just keep sending more and more troops to Iraq because there ARE no more troops. He’s scraping the bottom of the barrel so hard the barrel is coming apart (not that he cares).

    The insurgents are just like the Viet Cong. They study the American’s habits and then figure out ways to fight them. And because they don’t rotate out or go on leave or get vacations they eventually learn a lot if they stay alive.

    So, the situation will get worse and worse. American casualties are rising despite the surge and will keep on going up. The public will barely tolerate the escalation through September. By next year the pressure will be overwhelming and every Republican candidate will have to pull a Lieberman and suddenly discover how much he hates war. Then they’ll try and fudge the difference between them and the Democrats, at least enough to fool people until after the election.

    It will all be a con-job and the base won’t like it, but that’s tough! They will just have to suck it up like in hopes of victory like Democats did who weren’t totally in love with Kerry in 2004. Republicans are authoritarian-lovers who do what they’re told. Plus, they’ll have Hillary (uppity-emasculating-bitch- doesn’t-know-her-place) Obama (Horrible! An actual Negro! What’s the world coming to?) or possibly Edwards (FAG!) to hate. They’ll turn out in droves to “Stop Hillary!”

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