In the end, it didn’t matter what John Kerry said or didn’t say: it didn’t matter that Saddam Hussein was condemned to death, and, most of all, it didn’t matter that the White House fell back on its post-9/11 strategy of implying that a vote for the Democrats is a vote for Osama bin Laden the antiwar wave that has been rising for months crashed and broke over the heads of the Republican Party, sweeping away all but the most entrenched incumbents. This election, in the broadest sense, was a referendum on the Iraq war and the results are a dramatic rebuke to the War Party.
No amount of Republican scaremongering and cheap demagoguery was enough to stem the tide. An electorate that was sick of a war that they thought should never have been fought in the first place rose up and swatted the neoconized GOP.
Symbolic of the partisan divide was Virginia, where a Republican-turned-Democrat, Jim Webb, former Marine and somewhat paleoconish (at least in style), faced off against George "Macaca" Allen, whose stumbling, bumbling campaign was a model of Republican buffoonery. Allen is a down-the-line pro-war Republican, whose crudeness and insensitivity is practically the trademark of his party these days. Webb, on the other hand, is an intelligent and principled guy, stylistically the complete opposite of his opponent. Emblematic of the struggle between these two was Allen’s attempt to smear Webb on account of some out-of-context passages from the Democratic candidate’s novels: this tactic, characteristic of the Republican smear machine, was just plain stupid, at least in my view: most voters probably didn’t know that Webb writes novels, and rather than put the focus on the raciness of certain passages it merely made Webb’s resumé seem more impressive. This wasn’t just redneck ignorance (feigned or real) on the part of the Allen camp: in their desperation to avoid the main issue the war they had no choice but to turn to such non-issues in the hope that they could divert voters’ attention and draw their opponent into a quagmire, so to speak. It didn’t work.
Webb was an early critic of the war. Back in September 2002, when it wasn’t quite so fashionable, he asked: "Do we really want to occupy Iraq for the next thirty to fifty years?" Few were raising this issue at the time; now, that question is on everyone’s lips. Webb was motivated to run, in large part, because of his opposition to the war, and he made it a major part of his campaign. “I don’t wake up in the morning wanting to be a U.S. senator,” said Webb, whose reluctance as a candidate (he’s never run for public office) is charming in this era of stagy, self-promoting politicians. “I wake up every morning very concerned about the country. We need to put some focus back in our foreign policy, a different focus.”
His victory over Allen is symbolic of what this election was all about: it was not only a rejection of the war and our foreign policy of global interventionism, but also a stunning repudiation of a party that has degenerated into an unrecognizable Bizarro World version of its former self. As secretary of the Navy under Reagan, Webb is hardly a pacifist, but his view of America’s national interest is worlds away from the neoconservatives’ enthusiasm for "regime change" at the drop of a hat. His trenchant warnings of the dangers of imperial overstretch are granted authority by his extensive military experience and by a new realism that is spreading through both Democratic and Republican circles.
The scene now shifts to the internal battle within the two major parties. The Democrats, having ridden the wave of anti-interventionist sentiment, are not united on what is to be done and, remember, they are complicit in what Gen. William E. Odom calls the greatest strategic disaster in American military history. Most of them voted for it, in any case, and now claim they were deceived: but that isn’t saying very much for their own judgment or their willingness to take an independent course.
The Rahm Emanuel wing of the party Democratic congressional campaign committee head Emanuel routinely opposed antiwar candidates in the party primaries is determined to keep the party on a "centrist," i.e., objectively pro-war course, raising all the old canards about the alleged "weakness" of Democratic candidates on issues related to national security. But the reality is that the Democrats now have the advantage on that question: polls show voters trust the Democrats more on national security than the Republicans, a stunning reversal. And this has nothing to do with the feigned "toughness" of the "national security Democrats" who are merely blue-state neocons but with the party’s perceived (albeit not actual) antiwar stance. The American people are waking up: they now realize that the war has increased the threat of terrorism and empowered Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, greatly increasing anti-Americanism not only in the Muslim world but around the globe.
These election results set the stage for a Democratic antiwar presidential candidate to emerge. The problem is that the party leadership is decidedly centrist, i.e., pro-war, with Hillary Clinton being the exemplar in this regard. Her determined opposition to U.S. withdrawal, or even a timetable to begin phasing out our troop presence, has pretty much set the tone of her party’s "mainstream" voices on the war issue. All that is now changed, however: the Democratic ranks are just waiting for someone like Webb to step forward. Someone who would meet with furious opposition from the staid party Establishment from all the special interests, the foreign lobbyists, the self-appointed arbiters of the politically permissible and finally break the neocon stranglehold on American foreign policy.
The Republicans, for their part, will now become preoccupied with identifying the reasons for their stunning defeat and making sure it doesn’t happen again. What is clear is that the neoconservative principles embodied by this administration not only a foreign policy of unmitigated aggression, but also a high-spending, big-government domestic policy that has thrown overboard the old conservatism of fiscal restraint and reflexive opposition to centralized power have led the GOP down the garden path to disaster. The Iraq war was a gigantic albatross hung ’round the neck of Republican candidates on every level: even Lincoln Chafee, who had distanced himself from the president and did not approve of the Iraq war, was felled in the November massacre. The voters punished the Republican Party because they identified it with the War Party and all Republicans suffered as a result. Republican moderates suffered such major casualties this time around that they appear headed for extinction: Rep. Jim Leach, perhaps the leading moderate figure with any national prominence, was also defeated in his reelection bid.
Increasing numbers of conservatives are questioning the neocons’ intellectual and political leadership, and the situation is ripe for a bloodletting in the GOP as the finger-pointing begins. There were, of course, those on the Right who opposed this war from the very beginning, and, indeed, oppose our interventionist foreign policy as the worst sort of folly imaginable, comparable in its disastrous scope to the failed social-engineering schemes of the former Soviet regime. For all their talk of "liberation," the Commies could no more make a New Soviet Man than the Bushies could create a New Iraqi Man and the reasons for this are inherent in the human condition, as most conservatives recognize (or used to recognize). Now, it remains for the conservative movement to throw out the revolutionaries [.pdf] who have infiltrated their ranks, and cleanse themselves of any taint of neoconservatism or prepare to pay the price at the polls.
This election provides the antiwar movement with some reason for optimism, but we shouldn’t put our trust in politicians. Once they are in office, they tend to forget the reasons the voters put them there. Unless we hold their feet to the fire, they’ll get comfortable in their new Washington offices, and will soon accommodate themselves to the ruling bipartisan foreign policy consensus, which is that we are in Iraq (and the Middle East) in a big way for the long haul, and there isn’t much anyone can do about it. Now is the time to put the pressure on: where are those long-promised investigations into who lied us into war? The Democrats, most of them, claim they were tricked into voting for the war resolution, yet there has been a distinct lack of interest on their part in finding out how this occurred. Was the intelligence about Iraq’s alleged "weapons of mass destruction" faked and, if so, by whom? What role did Vice President Dick Cheney’s office play in the propaganda campaign that eventually succeeded in roping in most of the Democrats? What about those blatant forgeries that were somehow injected into the president’s State of the Union address, the infamous "16 words" that turned out to have been quite wrong? Not to mention the machinations of Ahmed Chalabi, Iranian agent and the neocons’ favorite to replace Saddam Hussein surely his shenanigans, conducted at taxpayers’ expense, cry out for a congressional investigation.
With a majority in the House and probably the Senate, the Democrats now have it in their power to at least halt the escalation of the war. The War Party is calling for sending as many as 50,000 additional troops to Iraq. If the Democrats sent to Washington in the wake of the November Revolution fulfill their mandate, they’ll put a swift stop to this and take their opposition to the war one step further. Congress holds the purse strings and can cut off funds for the war whenever it likes: failure to do so will blur the differences between the two parties on this issue and betray the trust of millions who registered their opposition to the war by voting Democratic. The Democrats must either oppose the war and vote to rein in the president with their power of the purse or else they must take their share of responsibility for the failed policy of this administration, and also share the blame.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Before I get letters about it, let me say that I’m perfectly aware that the Virginia contest is going to a recount. Yet it doesn’t look as if Allen is going to make up the 8,000-plus vote margin, no matter how many times they count the votes. The GOP can delay the official proclamation of Webb’s victory for weeks, but in the end, I believe, Webb will emerge triumphant. So my analysis stands.
As for the victory of Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, this is the exception that proves the rule. Lieberman’s Democratic opponent, Ned Lamont, made two major errors: (1) He veered off his emphasis on his antiwar stance and sought to "broaden" his constituency and didn’t get back on message until it was too late, and (2) he went on vacation for a couple of weeks right after winning the Democratic primary against Lieberman and never regained his early momentum. In addition, his cool, patrician demeanor was not an asset, and Lieberman had a lot of help from big GOP donors and the War Party nationally, without a counterbalancing effort by Lamont’s supporters nationally.
So, yes, Lieberman’s victory sticks in the craw, yet it doesn’t mean that the voters of Connecticut endorsed the war: the exit polls tell a different story.