Long wars make for strange situations. When shooting wars, political wars, and culture wars combine, situations can get even stranger.
The last U.S. president to serve six or more years without a major meltdown was Teddy Roosevelt. President George W. Bush's is well under way. Year Six elections have never been kind to the White House. The Democrats should be drooling.
They are. All over themselves. As The New York Times reported, they're already bewailing the next batch of "missed opportunities." Chief among them: 60 or so antiwar and anti-Bush veterans looking for jobs in Congress. Few have been welcomed. Last summer, the party recruited Paul Hackett, a popular Ohio vet, to run for the Senate. Last week, they pressured him to bow out in favor of Rep. Sherrod Brown. When Jim Webb, a Vietnam hero, author, and Reagan administration Navy secretary, announced his Democratic Senate candidacy in Virginia, the party did not respond with fervor. At a February Capitol Hill photo op involving 40 vets, Democratic consultant Michael Duga suggested: "If we get a half-dozen elected, it will be a resounding success."
They know it. They're getting organized, into groups such as the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America PAC (iavapac.org), a Wesley Clark creation, and the "Band of Brothers" (fightingdems.america-patriots.com). They'll have to. Few have political experience or fame. They're counting on group stature for credibility.
What the vets offer the Democrats is far from clear. Running against the chickenhawks who sent them to war may feel good, but it doth not a platform make. And veterans must demonstrate their ability to attract disgusted mainstream conservatives: a potentially decisive constituency who, so far, the Democratic Party has resolutely refused to entice.
The vets could bring them in, provided they do three things.
First, they must explain why they've taken this military stance. It's not just the Iraq mess. Nor is it the fact that the Bush oligarchy and the MICE, the Military-Industrial- Congressional Empire, continue to squander billions. It's that the administration, for all its syrupy rhetoric about the troops, has deliberately decided to write off the human component of the military.
After 9/11, Bush told America, "Go shopping." We did. Four years later, the Pentagon and the administration concluded that the American people will not provide sufficient men and women to fight what the new Quadrennial Defense Review decrees "the long war" against terrorism. Call it lethargy, cynicism, a reasoned judgment on the war, or all three. The people have not engaged.
Now the military's paying for it. The forces should be expanding for the post-Iraq/post-Katrina world. They can't, at least not without a draft that the Army (unwilling to do any more Iraqs) resolutely and correctly opposes. So the Navy and Air Force are letting people go, while the Army has reduced its expansion plans to meaninglessness. The present force is expendable, to be worked to exhaustion and, from time to time, killed.
Thus the vets' fundamental defense gripe: They just don't matter to the people who sent them to war, and who are trashing the military now. And millions of mainstream conservatives share this sense that, to the administration and the Republican Party, they don't matter much, either. They can be taken for granted. At least, so long as the Democrats remain the inept, self-obsessed opponents they are.
But it's not enough to mobilize resentment. Vets must get serious about a package of issues that includes everything from climate change to border control, from outsourcing to entitlements. In any battle, the heroes are self-selecting. If they cannot select themselves for the kind of political heroism that tells it like it is, they offer nothing.
But their most important potential contribution may come, in Lionel Trilling's phrase, at "the bloody crossroads" where politics and culture meet. Whatever their excesses, the Culture Wars of the '60s to '90s were about making room in America for everyone, about making America something that we all do together. Now a cultural conservatism of arrogance, fundamentalism, intolerance, and messianic self-delusion seeks to "take back the country," as though it were theirs to take back. Sadly but understandably, much of the left remains mired in those struggles. They're unwilling or unable to accept that they've won, or that the stridency and divisiveness that once worked no longer avail against the current threat. The MoveOn crowd, the hard-left ideologues, the professional Culture Warriors, will not yield happily to an influx of vets and former Republicans, and may indeed be willing to lose an election or two more, in order to maintain business as usual. But it would be wrong for the vets to demean or dismiss them, or to indulge the thin-skinned defensiveness that military people in politics too often exude. Better, as that great American thinker Rodney King once suggested, to just "get along."
In the end, the 2006 election will be about more than a possible return to split government. It will be about whether new alliances and alignments can form, about all kinds of people casting off all kinds of worn-out predilections, prejudices, and superannuated strategies and tactics. It will be about how many new votes the Democrats can muster in 2006 and how many new voters they can enroll for 2008. In this effort, the Democratic Party establishment would do well to heed Ike's warning that "You can't face the future by marching backwards into the past."
Philip Gold is author of Take Back the Right. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The real Mossback, Knute Berger, is on vacation.