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When Democrats Became Doves


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Foreign Policy :

With the GOP candidates eager to call Obama weak-willed on foreign policy, it's worth looking at how Democrats got stuck with this tag.
DECEMBER 2, 2011

Forty-four years ago this week, the senior senator from the state of Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, stepped to a podium in the Senate Caucus Room and transformed the Democratic Party. Angered by the war in Vietnam and his belief that President Lyndon Johnson would "set no limit to the price" he was "willing to pay for a military victory," there McCarthy announced his intention to challenge the incumbent president of his own party in four presidential primaries.


Tet set the stage, but it was the "Clean for Gene," anti-war activists that sealed the deal. Trudging through the snows of New Hampshire for the country's first presidential primary, McCarthy's army of well-scrubbed volunteers (no beards or long hair for this crew) spoke to two-thirds of all New Hampshire Democrats in just a six-week period. They were aided by a candidate who downplayed his anti-war views and depicted his candidacy as an opportunity to send a message to Johnson. It didn't much matter that some voters thought they were voting for the notorious former Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy or were angry at LBJ for not prosecuting the war in Vietnam more aggressively; yet McCarthy's strategy worked beautifully. Even though he lost the final vote, McCarthy's 42 percent showing shocked the political world, brought Bobby back into the race, and ushered Johnson out less than three weeks later. This wholly unexpected turn of events earned McCarthy something far larger than a footnote in the history books.


With this political shift by national Democrats, the foreign policy divide that appeared in the late 1960s has oddly grown wider over the years. The liberal wing of the party still views Democratic elites and party leaders who supported the war in Iraq with contempt and suspicion (not unrightfully so). For many, it was the ultimate betrayal of the movement that emerged out of the tumult of 1968 and re-opened a wound first gashed by McCarthy in that Senate Caucus Room, 44 years ago. To this day, Democrats continue to be a party defined at its grassroots by reluctance to use military force, support for multilateral institutions, and opposition to the more aggressive elements of the war on terror. There is perhaps no policy issue where the divide between party and president is more acute -- from civil liberties to the war in Afghanistan.

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