Two things happened in the last few days that could have a lasting effect on the future direction -- and electoral success -- of the Democratic Party. One drew a ton of attention; the other, despite being far more significant, somehow fell through the mainstream media cracks.
The headline grabber was, of course, Joe "Greater Loyalties" Lieberman filing papers to form a new party called Connecticut for Lieberman, just in case this whole letting-Democratic-primary-voters-decide thing doesn't work out in August. Cue Simon & Garfunkel: "Where have you gone, Joe Lieberman, a Party turns its disgusted eyes to you. Woo woo woo. What's that you say, Mrs. Boxer, Boltin' Joe has left and gone away? Hey, hey, hey."
Lieberman's desperate move only serves to highlight what went underreported: Bill Clinton saying on Friday that Democrats (username: firstname.lastname@example.org/pass: huffpo) "ought to be whipped if we allow our differences over what to do now over Iraq divide us." Is he serious? He makes it sound as if the debate over the war is petty squabbling on the level of whether one should wear white after Labor Day.
There is no way a politician as savvy as Bill Clinton could be this clueless about just how seismic a division Iraq is for Democrats, so I can only assume it was the guilt talking -- the former president trying to make up for the wrong-headed advice he's been giving Hillary about adopting a Bush-lite, "centrist" stance on the war. A stance that means she has to keep assuming, in the face of all evidence, that everything will turn out okay in Iraq -- an assumption that with each passing car bomb explosion and sectarian massacre becomes more and more divorced from reality and puts Hillary, and all those who agree with her, on the wrong side of history.
Just since Monday, we've had the video of our mutilated soldiers posted on the web, and the Iraqi government, responding to the outcry over the Mahmudiya rape-murder case, calling for an end to immunity from local law for U.S. troops. The truth about Iraq couldn't be clearer: our troops are being asked to handle a mission they weren't trained for, leading to horrific acts like those in Haditha and Mahmudiya, followed by horrific acts of revenge and reprisal -- an escalating cycle of violence that makes support for the war all the more indefensible. No wonder Bill Clinton doesn't want Dems making a big deal over their differences on Iraq. He'd rather bury his head in the bloody sands of Baghdad.
I find it amazing that Clinton's comments on Iraq didn't cause more of an uproar. Indeed, they were nowhere to be found in the mainstream press, relegated to a single paragraph in a story in the Aspen Daily News.
If you want a better understanding of the importance of Democratic differences over the war, just look at what happened in 1968. The presidential campaign was all about the battle over how to deal with Vietnam. In the Democratic primaries, first Eugene McCarthy and then Bobby Kennedy took courageous stands against LBJ's prosecution of the war, eventually leading Johnson to announce he would not seek re-election and causing a massive rift in the party. Before RFK was gunned down following his victory in the California primary, the race was shaping up to be a showdown between the anti-war Kennedy and Vice President Humphrey, who was standing behind Johnson's handling of Vietnam.
Can you imagine someone in 1968 telling Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey that they "ought to be whipped" for fighting over their views on Vietnam?
In the end, Kennedy was assassinated, and Humphrey (backed by the party bosses) prevailed over McCarthy to win the nomination. In the general election campaign against Nixon, Humphrey continued to defend the war, alienating the Democratic base and prompting anti-war protests at almost all of his campaign appearances. Five weeks before the election, trailing Nixon badly in the polls, Humphrey finally made a speech distancing himself from Johnson and calling for an end to the U.S. bombing in Vietnam. The move turned his campaign around -- but not in time to overtake Nixon. There is speculation that if Humphrey had come out against the bombing even one week earlier, he might have prevailed.
So, 40 years later, the question becomes: will Hillary be the Humphrey of 2008?
One thing is certain: papering over Democratic differences on Iraq is no longer possible. Let Democrats fight it out and choose. And, if they want to be a majority party again, let's hope they choose to reject the Hillary-Lieberman-Humphrey war-apologist wing of the party, and take a decisive stand on Iraq.
Bill Clinton can't be allowed to whip the party into submission.