Nov 1 2007

Vietnam’s Lessons?

The disastrous end to the Vietnam War served as a historical reference point for many pundits urging Democrats to forget pulling out of Iraq. But the history lesson was shaky.

Presenting the congressional fight over war funding as indicative of “what will likely become post-Iraq politics in America,” ABC World News (4/26/07) reported that Republicans were standing tough with an unpopular White House, while Democrats were more or less following majority opinion against the war. This, the report noted, was a problem—for Democrats.

“Democrats know they must be careful,” explained reporter Terry Moran. “The shadow of the Vietnam War looms over this debate. Beginning in the late 1960s Democrats, reflecting public opinion, opposed that war and lost seven of the next 10 presidential elections.” Republican strategist Vin Weber was featured endorsing this reasoning.

Moran was right, of course, that Democrats lost those White House races, but the relationship to Vietnam is less clear. Is there really a connection between George W. Bush’s Supreme Court victory in 2000 and Democratic foreign policy votes 30 years earlier?

A March 22 L.A. Times story, “Democrats’ Iraq War Stance Politically Risky,” similarly noted that at the time of the debate over defunding the Vietnam War, “the Capitol Hill campaign against the war enjoyed public support. . . . But Democrats paid a price.” That “price,” apparently, was that Democrats would come to be known—or least labeled by Republicans—as antiwar.

That seemed to be ABC pundit Cokie Roberts’ point (This Week, 3/25/07) as well: “Vietnam at the time the Democrats finally turned against it in terms of votes was very unpopular with the public too, and they lived with that as an albatross around their necks for the next 30 years, and that could be the case here as well.”

The evidence for the proposition that Democrats lost elections by responding to public opinion is scant. One would expect that Vietnam’s greatest impact would be on elections closest to the end of the war. In fact, as was noted in a rare corrective to this storyline (from an unlikely source, pro-Iraq War commentator Peter Beinart—Time, 4/2/07), the Democrats won the first midterm election after Democrats voted to end the war in a landslide, and retook the White House two years later.

Is there some lingering or resurgent support for the Vietnam War that pundits believe works against the Democrats? No, that war remains deeply unpopular. A 2000 CBS/NYT poll (4/15-17/00) found 60 percent of the public saying the U.S. should have stayed out, vs. 24 percent who said entering the war was the right thing to do.

So why does this baseless storyline stick? Maybe because it fits so well with elite media’s template for foreign policy: Democrats are weak, Republicans are tough. The facts—about Vietnam or Iraq—don’t seem to matter. —P.H.