Ever since the Vietnam era, Democrats have struggled to overcome a notion the party is not just antiwar but antimilitary.Well, the Democrats have a long way to go, that's for sure! Nominating Kerry in 2004 certainly didn't help. Kerry's antiwar activism after his tour of duty always raised questions in the political arena as to the Massachusett's senator's true positions on the military and the use of force (the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth come to mind here).
Now, sensing a chance to shed that image, Democrats are wrapping themselves in khaki and embracing the nation's fighting men and women.
Even as they press for withdrawal from Iraq, congressional Democrats have proposed more money for armored vehicles, shorter tours of duty for Reserve soldiers and expanded programs to care for veterans.On the campaign trail, party leaders and Democratic presidential hopefuls invariably couple condemnation of the war with expressions of sympathy and support for those fighting....
Republicans, who have long had an edge over Democrats on defense and national security issues, are hardly ceding the high ground. They say any effort to make war funding conditional amounts to a "slow-bleed strategy" that hurts soldiers. "Republicans will not support rationing for our troops in harm's way, and neither will the American people," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio....
It is a rare position for the party [the Democrats], which was torn apart by the Vietnam War and has paid a political price ever since.
From antiwar riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago to the failed rescue of U.S. hostages in Iran to pictures of presidential hopeful Michael S. Dukakis in a tank, the party often managed to project hostility or ineptitude toward the armed forces — an image Republicans were happy to exploit.
That began to change about 1992, after the first U.S. invasion of Iraq. Although Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton spent much of his Democratic presidential campaign batting down charges that he dodged the Vietnam draft, he didn't shrink from using patriotic and pro-military symbolism in his campaign. He selected Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, a Vietnam veteran, as his running mate, in part because of Gore's vote in support of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
In 2004, Democrats nominated another Vietnam veteran, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, who turned the party's national convention into a pageant of pro-military sentiment. "That wouldn't have happened in 1972," said Mark Mellman, a Kerry strategist, who remembers marveling at the standing ovation accorded the soldiers and sailors who spoke on Kerry's behalf. "They wouldn't have been invited, and they wouldn't have gotten a standing ovation."
Still, polltaker Peter Hart, who has advised scores of Democratic candidates, cautions that the party has to "make up a lot ground" to convince a majority of voters that its members can be as strong as Republicans on national defense.
"You have perceptions that have been ground in over a long, long period of time," said Hart, who suggested that supporting the troops was one way of showing the party's resolve.
Moreover, today's congressional debate on the war funding authorization bill shows that the Democrats just can't have it both ways: You don't support the troops by setting arbitrary withdrawal timelines and politically-motivated benchmarks. As weak as President Bush may be in the polls, he's bested the Democrats in the veto fight on war funding (see my post, "The War in Washington Over the War in Iraq," for more information to that effect).