Special Report

A Legacy of Losing

From McClellan to McGovern to forever: Democrats as the surrender party.

By 6.7.07

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"Everyone's thinking it. I'm just saying it."

The line is from the first Pirates of the Caribbean spectacular, blurted aloud by an uneasy sailor aboard a ship of the British Navy. The seaman voices a nautical fear that the presence of a woman on board (in this case the young Elizabeth Swann) is bad luck.

John Edwards may be dubbed the "Breck Girl" by Rush Limbaugh, but his real problem -- the problem Democrats should be thinking about even if they can't bring themselves to just say it -- is the real world political legacy of Edwards' brisk sail towards abject surrender in the War on Terror. Even more terrifying for the dwindling ban of FDR, Truman, and JFK followers should be the enthusiasm of all the other Democratic candidates as they elbow each other aside in their frantic quest to climb aboard the Democratic ship as the leading anti-war candidate for 2008.

One has to wonder whether these candidates and their bevy of expensive consultants read history, in this case the history of their own party and the history of anti-war movements in America. The Democratic Party has been here before, in both the 19th and 20th century, and in each instance the perception of a clear majority of the American people that Democrats had turned their back on even an unpopular war proved to have deadly political consequences.

IN 1864, WITH THE BRAND-NEW Republican Party a mere four years in power, Democrats smelled political blood in all the horrendous military defeats that had occurred during Abraham Lincoln's watch. Lacerating Lincoln as an incompetent buffoon and an idiot, they nominated General George McClellan on what was instantly dubbed by Republicans as a "surrender platform." As historian Richard Carwardine detailed in his recent Lincoln biography, McClellan labeled the Civil War and Lincoln's efforts to end slavery a "failure." Running flat out on this platform, McClellan famously lost.

But it's what came after the 1864 election that should send shivers down the spine (such as it is) of Democrats. McClellan and his "surrender platform" so branded the Democrats as untrustworthy with presidential leadership that of the following eleven elections, stretching over forty years all the way from 1868 to 1908, Democrats won but two -- and those narrowly. In both cases the winner was New Yorker Grover Cleveland, who remains the only president to have won the presidency (1884), lost it (1888), and regained it (1892). By 1896 the GOP, with yet another Civil War supporter (and veteran) on the ticket -- William McKinley -- returned to stay until the GOP split of 1912 between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt elected Woodrow Wilson. And that eight-year interlude, almost broken in 1916, was resumed in 1920, keeping the GOP in power for another twelve-year stretch.

While Harry Truman defeated the pacifist Henry Wallace in 1948, in more recent times the same "surrender" tendency surfaced again in 1968, the ferocious struggle over Vietnam and America's approach to the Cold War ripping the Democrats down the middle. While Democrats Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern emerged to win the hearts and minds of peace activists, the hard political facts of their anti-war stances signaled yet another McClellan-style branding of Democrats as untrustworthy for the White House. Result? Democrats won only one out of the remaining six elections that coincided with the Cold War, and in 1976 candidate Jimmy Carter's narrow campaign victory came not by portraying himself as the virtual pacifist he now is but as a tough and smart Naval Academy graduate. Once voters saw Carter in action in the White House, dismissing the Communist threat only to be besieged by the Soviet Union from Afghanistan to Nicaragua, then by Islamic extremists in Iran, they removed him at the first opportunity to install Ronald Reagan. Not until the Cold War ended did Americans finally give the nod to another Democrat. Even then, with Bill Clinton campaigning as a moderate, he needed help from hardliner Ross Perot to divide the GOP vote. It was just barely enough -- Clinton winning his two terms against lackluster GOP candidates George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole with 43% and 49% respectively.

ONE CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE SMILE crossing the faces of various GOP candidates and consultants as the video recorders rolled at the recent Democratic debates. There wasn't a candidate in the bunch who was not racing as fast as possible to give the decided impression they were the next McClellan, McCarthy, or McGovern. Doubtless someone somewhere is gleefully prepping the first commercial for the general election, replete with vivid images of the next Democratic nominee morphing into McGovern or the appeasing British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

Two nights after the Democratic candidates' debate, with the lone exception of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul, every single Republican candidate stood on the same New Hampshire stage and took the traditional tough GOP stance that has won elections from Lincoln to Reagan and George W. Bush. Whether the issue was slavery and disunion in 1864, the Cold War in 1968, or the War on Terror in 2004, each of these elections shared one feature in common: a hardline Republican demanding victory while a Democrat insisted the war under discussion was a failure that required retreat if not surrender.

There was one other common feature in all of these wars that Democrats seemed almost innately unable to grasp. To stake out the role of peace-activist or to proclaim certain failure on the part of the United States always runs the risk of events proving them completely -- one could almost say foolishly if not obtusely -- wrong.

As George McClellan was trying to convince Americans that the Civil War was a failure, General William Tecumseh Sherman suddenly grabbed headlines by capturing Atlanta. Shortly afterward, Union General Phil Sheridan swept through the Shenandoah. McClellan looked the fool, and the image of a party on the wrong side of history -- a party all too willing to give up when the going gets tough -- stuck for decades.

Just over one hundred years later as McCarthy and McGovern campaigned furiously against the idea that the Soviet Union was a threat to world peace -- the Soviets suddenly sent tanks rolling through the streets of Prague, crushing not only an incipient rebellion but instantly casting the anti-war movement as dangerously clueless. While Richard Nixon won only 43% of the vote over Hubert Humphrey, Independent and Cold War hawk George Wallace -- whose running-mate was retired Air Force General Curtis "Bombs Away" LeMay -- carried the balance. The vote for Nixon and Wallace combined buried Humphrey despite the irony that Humphrey had emerged as a Democratic hawk under siege by the peace wing of his own party.

TODAY'S DEMOCRATS SEEM UNAWARE of the classic tale about the frog who is asked by a scorpion for a ride over a river. The frog agrees on one condition: that if he carries the scorpion on his back the scorpion will not fatally sting the frog. The scorpion agrees -- and of course halfway across the river he stings the frog, who immediately begins to die. Still, the frog has the strength to ask in a puzzled tone why the scorpion would do such a thing to him after promising not to. "Because I'm a scorpion," comes the response. Meaning, of course, stinging is what scorpions do, and to wish otherwise is a fool's errand.

With a great deal of hard work -- federal authorities and the New York City police department have just busted an Islamic terrorist plot to blow up JFK airport. Coming as it did in the middle of the campaign, it wasn't just the travelers and employees at JFK who had a close call. Had that plot not been stopped -- had Americans turned on their television sets and computers to see images of dead and dying Americans soaked in the flames of burning airplanes and airport causeways -- the 2008 election would have been over on the spot. Americans would have been reminded that this is what terrorists do.

All those polls that say Americans want to get out of Iraq would have vanished in a microsecond as the clamor to get the bad guys, to persist, to do whatever it takes to win the global war on terror swept the country. Not only would none of the Democrats in this race win in 2008, their successor nominees for as far as the political eye can see would be doomed to the electoral no-man's land that greeted those who had the misfortune to follow the political path of the 3 M's -- McClellan, McCarthy and McGovern. Indeed, if it follows the McClellan pattern future Democratic nominees could be wandering around making unsuccessful White House races until -- 2048!

THERE IS A REASON WHY America's favorite Democratic presidents are FDR, Truman, JFK and Bill Clinton. The reason is that the vast majority of Democratic nominees with names like Seymour, Greeley, Tilden, Hancock, Cleveland, Bryan, Parker, Cox, Davis, Smith, Stevenson, Humphrey, McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry simply could not win -- and in the case of nominees Bryan and Stevenson that meant not winning three times and twice respectively. You can't be anyone's favorite president if you can't win the presidency!

If it were bad luck to have a woman on board a ship in the days of the fictional Captain Jack Sparrow's pirating adventures, history certainly records that a political party whose leaders bring on board a candidate calling for retreat from a decidedly real-life moral struggle of the day -- whether it be slavery, the Cold War, or the War on Terror -- will without question induce a mind-numbing legacy of losing.

There may well be Democrats out there looking at these candidates who are thinking it, who understand it, who want to fight it. But no one is willing to say it.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.