Democrats struggling for a campaign message that would counter the weight of a wartime president might find instruction from a most unlikely source: Richard M. Nixon, who launched a generation of political comebacks for his own party, the Republicans, by effectively bridging the electoral divide over an unpopular war run by the opposing party.
Four decades ago, Nixon’s first successful presidential campaign made a crucial distinction that Democrats must construct today: defending his own party’s backing of war as an honorable act of pure patriotism, while at the same time attacking the party in power for incompetent management.
For a string of words that could ring true today, look no further than Nixon’s 1968 speech accepting the GOP nomination. As the Vietnam War under the leadership of a Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, was tearing the nation apart, Nixon neatly made the journey from defending his party’s early war support to arguing the case for change. “For four years, this administration has had the support of the loyal opposition for the objective of seeking an honorable end to the struggle,” he said.
With that single sentence, Nixon almost buried the issue of his own party’s unquestioning complicity in taking the nation to war — an issue that now bedevils those Democrats who voted for the invasion of Iraq, making them seem so tongue-tied as they try to maneuver a transition to criticizing the war effort. Nixon cleverly characterized his party’s support for the Vietnam War as the patriotic duty of the “loyal opposition.” And he further rationalized his party’s backing as a matter of earnestly sharing the lofty goal of an “honorable end to the struggle.”
After installing this rhetorical shield for the role of the GOP in agreeing to the disastrous military escalation in Vietnam, Nixon immediately turned to his argument for ousting the Democrats.
“Never has so much military and economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively,” he told the delegates in Miami Beach. “And if after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership — not tied to the mistakes and the policies of the past.”
How uncannily apt those very words would be this year if spoken by a Democrat challenging a Republican congressional incumbent — or by any of the Democrats planning to run for president in 2008. Nixon’s operative phrases make the challenger’s best case against incompetence. He talks about ineffective use of American power and the need for a clean break from “mistakes” of the past — concerns that repeatedly arise in today’s polling.
No matter how little Democrats have to offer in the way of a specific alternative to what President Bush is doing in Iraq, they could be in the same catbird seat Nixon found himself in 38 summers ago — faced with the simple task of arguing to a receptive audience of voters that anything is better than what we have now.
Gaming a ‘Plan’
But Nixon went further than just harnessing ephemeral sentiment for change. He dealt brilliantly with another dilemma that the Democrats encounter these days, the counterargument that war critics are obligated to put up a plan of their own. While relentlessly asserting that he could provide the competent leadership to end the Vietnam War, he refused to give details, insisting that it would irresponsibly tip off the enemy. This became known as Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the war — a phrase he never actually used, but never disavowed.
Today’s more skeptical coverage of such campaign gimmickry might not allow Democrats to get away with claiming they have a secret plan for Iraq. But they might be better off trying some version of it, rather than settling on a detailed plan and then subjecting it to the sort of critical scrutiny that distracts from their central case — that the current administration’s plan is not working.
Never mind that Nixon’s war-ending promises turned out to be something of a fraud: He escalated the conflict to new heights and saw more than 20,000 soldiers die during his first term. Despite what ensued, his campaign rhetoric helped to get him elected.
There is also a lesson here for Republicans. When Johnson halted bombings and started peace talks in response to criticism of the war, he dramatically narrowed Nixon’s wide margin over Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the Democratic nominee.
If today’s “loyal opposition” gets a Nixonian anti-war message together, Bush might find that following Johnson’s lead will help Republicans stem the tide against them.
Whether Democrats follow Nixon’s script or Republicans take a page from the Johnson script, it just goes to show that sometimes political partisans can learn more from the opposing party’s past than from their own.
Contributing Editor Craig Crawford is a news analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and “The Early Show” on CBS. He can be reached at email@example.com
. This column is scheduled to appear in the July 31 issue of CQ Weekly. For more information about CQ Weekly, please visit CQ.com.