Antiwar Stance Risky for Democrats

The sound inside the Democratic convention hall was an old and formerly common one. It was the pugnacious, defiant sound of jeering and booing. The sound of losers.

Delegates to the Democratic state convention in Sacramento last weekend hooted any presidential aspirant who seemed pro-war: like Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Never mind that the two respected Democrats are much more in sync with average Americans, I suspect, than these left-wing delegates.

"Saddam Hussein is a serious threat and must be disarmed, including with military force if necessary," Edwards declared, to chants of "No war!" The absent Lieberman's jumbo-screen message was drowned out by the catcallers.

All Americans have a right to peacefully protest, naturally, but these delegates also are party activists whose goal presumably is to elect Democrats. Listening to them, one couldn't help wonder whether they'd forgotten the political history of the Vietnam War. Or whether many were just old hippies trying to relive their antiwar youth.

The Democratic Party tore itself apart over Vietnam. It was a rotten war, and the protesters' cause was right.

But the party bloodletting elected Republican Richard Nixon president.

Democratic activists not only booed Nixon's 1968 Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, "they sabotaged him in California," recalls Humphrey advisor Joe Cerrell. "That whole left crowd led by [then-Assembly Speaker Jesse] Unruh."

The Democrats' 1972 antiwar candidate, Sen. George McGovern, was trounced in a landslide -- nationally and in California.

"For 30 years, Americans have been suspicious of our party's commitment to national security," notes Democratic strategist Garry South.

That hasn't been much of a problem for Democrats since a Republican president ended the Cold War. But now we're in a new era of security threats.

"There are a lot of questions of Bush about the clumsy way he has handled this thing," South says, "but in the final analysis, the Democratic Party cannot be positioned as the pacifist party -- the no-war-under-any-circumstances party -- and hope to succeed."

On the convention floor, I spotted Luke Breit, wearing jeans, a rumpled parka and a backpack. He's an environmental lobbyist and published poet, who has organized a local chapter of Poets Against the War. He's also on the Democratic State Central Committee.

"The last thing I want to be doing as I turn 60 is having to be out fighting against another ill-conceived war," he said. "But people of conscience have to raise their voices and speak out....

"I've always been opposed to the idea that killing people solves problems. Unless the United States is under some sort of immediate threat, which is a case I don't believe George Bush has made, I don't think we have any justification for this kind of assault."

Observes political analyst Tony Quinn, a Republican: "That convention turned out to be a Saddam Hussein pep rally. I'm not for this war, but the Democratic Party is falling back into its anti-military mode."

A couple of other thoughts about the war and politics:


The Green Party is wailing against President Bush and the war, calling for "civil disobedience." These liberals should remember who helped put Bush in the White House: They did.

If the Green candidate, Ralph Nader, hadn't picked up 97,000-plus votes in Florida, Democrat Al Gore would have carried the state instead of losing by only 500-plus. He'd be sitting in the Oval Office and we wouldn't be having this debate.

Sure, many of us sometimes are repulsed by both major candidates and cast a protest vote for a third-party spoiler. But this can have consequences: like the difference between peace and war.

Peter Miguel Camejo, the Green candidate for California governor last year, says the solution is "instant runoffs." The voter marks a second choice. If the first-choice candidate fails, the vote goes to the second choice. Gore would have been the second choice of most Nader voters in Florida -- and therefore the winner.


Bush's war, in a political twist, has sabotaged the Republican drive to recall Gov. Gray Davis. It's hard to stay intensely bitter about California's governor when American troops are chasing the butcher of Baghdad, some dying.

People -- and talk radio -- are focused on bigger prey. Concerned about life and death.

The state budget is on the back burner. For citizens, anyway. It shouldn't be for the governor and Legislature -- unless they'd like to hear the public's pugnacious jeering and booing.

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