The Debate and the Myth of the Antiwar Democrat

On Tuesday, CNN hosted the first Democrat debate of the 2016 presidential election. Present and accounted for were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Rhode Island Governor (but also Republican Senator) Lincoln Chafee, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.

A lot of domestic issues were raised and debated. Sanders continued to feel most like the new Obama, in that he’d said some nice things about not going to war, but didn’t sound adamant about that. Nobody was very pro Edward Snowden except Chafee, and Clinton was the most adamantly opposed to the whistleblower’s actions.

The most heartening moment for antiwar principle might have been when Chafee and Sanders piled onto Clinton over her vote for the 2003 Iraq invasion and called her trustworthiness into question. Clinton, in true political style, responded more or less with but the president liked me enough to appoint me Secretary of State, which is not an answer. As’s Zack Beauchamp noted, this evasion was not challenged by any of the other candidates.

Fundamentally, nobody on the debate stage sounded as overtly hawkish as nearly all GOP candidates do when they are running for the highest office in the land. Clinton has hawk credentials, but she plays a delicate game by not acting ashamed of them because they make her more “experienced” and therefore fit for office, while not exactly trumpeting them because they are not what Democrats like to think of themselves as (warmongering). This absurd balancing act makes Clinton appear even more of a weasel (to mix my animal metaphors).

Chafee, the most overtly antiwar – and least popular candidate – had a fascinating mix of anti-charisma and what appears to be actual nervousness. His utter lack of even faux-folksiness makes his choice to run for president almost endearing in its hopelessness. Unfortunately, even the purity of his principles are damaged by the fact that he voted for the PATRIOT Act while in the Senate. (Sanders, to his credit, did not. No prizes for guessing how Clinton voted.)

Sounding less quivery than he did during the debate, Chafee did a decent job justifying his continued campaign to Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. He said that he needed to be in the race to raise important issues, and that his nine measly minutes of talking confirms that “the establishment just does not want to hear an antiwar voice.” Blitzer asked Chafee why he is running when Sanders is also an antiwar candidate. Chafee took issue with this descriptor, and agreed with the analysis (or critique, depending) of Sanders which says that though he’s better than some (Clinton) on foreign policy, he seriously downplays it in favor of domestic democratic socialist soapboxing. (And you have to wonder whether Sanders’s past as a conscientious objector during Vietnam might encourage him into hawkish overcompensation as president.)

Sanders feels like a new Obama, though a more anti-corporate one. He is unlikely to be as hawkish as Clinton, but he has already admitted he would not take drone strikes off the table. He could follow the Obama and even Bill Clinton tradition of dabbling in foreign countries – sending a few missiles in without any official declarations of war, or without the full wars of the Bush administration. Hopefully a president Sanders would not do as Obama has done in terms of setting new precedents for extrajudicial assassinations. Yet again, it doesn’t seem as if Sanders would take such a thing of the table. Remember, as bad as Obama has been on foreign policy, he could have been worse. And that doesn’t excuse one innocent death that is on Obama’s hands.

Could have been worse and not as bad as the Republicans is what slightly self-aware Democrats believe about themselves in respect to war-making. However, the 20th century really does suggest otherwise.

From Wilson, to FDR, to Truman, to JFK and LBJ, Democrat presidents often are the ones making ill-advised sojourns into international messes. World War II’s reputation as the good war, and the forgotten quality of Korea clarifies why FDR and Truman’s reputations are so positive. But JFK began the slow decline into Vietnam, a war that killed up to 2 million Vietnamese and some 58,000 Americans. LBJ was discouraged by the backlash to his disastrous Vietnam decisions, and didn’t run for office again. The Democrats of 1968 were therefore more radical. And they lost. And that gave us Richard Nixon, a truly awful, bloody president.

Fundamentally, it is too easy to say that the press has a liberal bias. Or even that history does when it lets everyone except a man who lied about a break-in rest with an unsullied historical reputation. Nobody cares about the deaths on William McKinley, a Republican, either. And he was arguably the father of American empire (at least outside the continent). Still, Republicans have a war-making reputation that they have earned. Democrats evade it, and frequently deal with accusations of being “soft” by killing a few people.

Each party has professed values which they violate at convenient times. Nobody wants to complain about Obama’s wars, either because they’re partisans who fall into line, or because they are afraid that a Republican president would be even worse. The latter is a more forgivable mentality, but it is still one with a large body count.

Dead is dead. And smaller interventions still breed resentments. As the recent debate shows, Democrats know how to speak about war without sounding like a cardboard cutout of a cowboy, but history shows their decisions end up just as bloody. They may make more apologetic faces when speaking about the dead, and speak more somberly about various US “accidents” like bombing a hospital, but the blood is on their hands just the same. It’s encouraging to see someone like Chafee and maybe Rand Paul on a good day or Donald Trump on a lucid day speak critically of US wars, but it isn’t going to change anything. Decision 2016 will still be a choice between men and women who confidently charge into war and men who make uncomfortable faces while they do the same.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.