WASHINGTON – When it comes to war with Iraq, this is not your father’s Democratic Party.
At least not if your father protested the war in Vietnam, voted for peace candidate George McGovern or thought Mike Dukakis looked good in that tank.
The coming vote in Congress on war with Iraq is revealing a new Democratic Party, one desperate to shed the anti-war, anti-military reflex that defined it from Vietnam through the Persian Gulf War.
First popularized by challenges to President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 over Vietnam, anti-war and anti-military sentiments prevailed in the Democratic Party for a quarter-century.
They propelled the 1972 presidential nomination of McGovern, the Democrats’ aversion to force during the 1980s presidency of Ronald Reagan and their near-total opposition to the 1991 Gulf War against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Now, those looking instinctively for Democrats to oppose President Bush’s drumbeat for war with Iraq are finding few leaders.
Anti-war voices are rare, and many leading Democrats -such as House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, who opposed the 1991 war -are lining up behind Bush on Iraq.
Leading Democrats predict that Congress will pass a resolution giving Bush broad authority to wage war against Saddam with sweeping support from Democrats.
Three main things: Democrats are weary of being tarred as weak in a nation that prizes strength, the nature of war changed in the 1990s to being about human-rights causes that Democrats could support and Sept. 11 made clear that America is already at war.
“The Democratic Party has shifted,” said Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston University who has written extensively on political parties. “It had to shift if it wanted to be electorally relevant.”
McGovern, a former World War II bomber pilot who led the party’s anti-war movement in 1972 and suffered a landslide loss to Richard Nixon for his trouble, said Democrats were abandoning their longstanding principle of challenging the use of force out of fear of losing in November’s congressional elections.
“Instead of making up our minds based on what is right for the country, they’re deciding based on the quickest, short-term political gain,” McGovern said in an interview.
“They don’t want to be put in a position of appearing soft on war, especially in an election year. The Republicans for 50 years have tried to make political hay painting the Democrats as weak. And it’s produced results for them.”
Democratic leaders in Congress, particularly those angling to run for president in 2004, say they support force out of principle.
Saddam is a threat to arming terrorists, they say, and Sept. 11 made clear that terrorists can and will attack the United States.
“Our concern is that weapons of mass destruction wind up in the hands of terrorists,” said Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives and a possible contender for the White House.
“Our highest responsibility is to make sure a weapon of mass destruction is not used here or anywhere. And so this is about our responsibility to keep the American people safe.”
Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., another potential presidential candidate, is no less bellicose than Bush.
“The United States must lead an international effort to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein,” he said recently on the Senate floor. “The path of confronting Saddam is full of hazards.
But the path of inaction is far more dangerous.”
Democrats were not always peace activists.
Democratic presidents led the country into two world wars, and major conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.
“Democrat wars,” Republican Bob Dole once termed them.
That started to change in 1968, when Democratic Sens. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Robert F. Kennedy of New York challenged President Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent Democrat, over the war in Vietnam and helped force him out of office.
Four years later, a solidly anti-war party nominated McGovern, whose campaign aides included future presidential candidates Gary Hart and Bill Clinton.
In the 1980s, Democrats opposed Reagan’s military buildup, his confrontational approach to the Soviet Union, his support for anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Afghanistan, and his proposal to build a space-based defense system against missile attacks.
In his bid for re-election in1984, Reagan swept Democrat Walter Mondale away in a landslide.
As late as 1991, the Democratic Party remained solidly anti-war.
After Saddam’s army invaded Kuwait and President Bush, the current president’s father, orchestrated a five-month buildup for war, 45 Democrats in the Senate and 179 in the House voted against authorizing the use of force.
The war was fought anyhow, and Bush won a wildly popular victory.
Change began coming to the Democrats in the 1990s, partly because the nature of war itself changed.
Democratic President Clinton sent the military into Bosnia as peacekeepers. And he waged an air war against Yugoslav forces to stop ethnic cleansing in the province of Kosovo, a low-risk approach in a humanitarian cause.
“The contours of the American role in the world changed,” Schulman said.
“Overseas interventions were about humanitarian and democratic issues.
Democrats look on that differently. In Bosnia and then Kosovo, the party became the party of intervention.”
Al Gore and Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic ticket in 2000, also proudly display their pro-military credentials.
They were among 10 Senate Democrats who had voted to authorize war against Iraq in 1991.
© 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.