Is it Polyanna-ish to look for hopeful signs in the congressional votes that overwhelmingly supported President Obama’s supplemental appropriations request for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Perhaps, nonetheless there were a couple. For one, with debate on the Iraq War largely frozen by the government’s theoretical commitment to complete troop withdraw by 2012, the growing war in Afghanistan has for the first time surfaced as the focal point of debate. And with the presence of a Democrat in the White House shrinking the opposition – from the 155 in the House and 26 in the Senate who voted “No” on the last Bush request to 60 and 3 respectively – opponents of these wars do at least know who their real friends are. But what would constitute a significant development would be for this latest vote to serve as a spur to confronting our pro-war congressional representatives where it matters most – at the polls on Election Day – with antiwar candidacies.
By now it’s clear that we can’t expect to find much by way of a parallel between the course of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the opposition to the current wars. The present movement has never lived up to the hopes engendered by the pre-war level of opposition to the Iraq invasion that was probably without precedent in world history. And, in hindsight, it may have been inevitable that the substantially lower troop levels involved and the absence of a draft would dash hopes of an opposition of Vietnam Era proportions. And yet there are a still a few things about that old antiwar movement that we might want to take a closer look at – for instance, its early electoral challenges.
In 1966, congressional opposition to the Vietnam War was quite weak. With President Lyndon Johnson arguing that maintenance of the war effort was vital to national security, congressional Democrats were reluctant to buck one of their own. So activists in the antiwar movement, then still quite small compared to what it would be just a few years later, opted to take on a number of pro-war Democrats in primaries in various spots around the country.
The candidates varied widely. Ted Weiss, for instance, was already a New York City Councilman when he challenged a pro-war incumbent, James Dinsmoor a University of Indiana professor, and Robert Scheer was editor of Ramparts Magazine. (The magazine’s publisher Ed Keating also ran in the Democratic primary in the then Republican district on the peninsula south of San Francisco.) The candidacies varied just as widely. Where Dinsmoor is generally remembered as a single issue candidate (who was even detained by the Indianapolis police for protesting President Johnson’s visit to the area during his campaign), Scheer took Berkeley/Oakland, California Representative Jeff Cohelan to task for his stands on environmental and labor issues as well, although the incumbent was generally deemed a solid liberal.
None of the candidates mentioned above won their races, but seems unlikely that too many of their campaign workers felt that their time was wasted. While Scheer would not seek office again despite netting 45 percent of the primary vote, opting instead for a career as a columnist and now editor of online publication Truthdig, four years later Ron Dellums would tip Cohelan from office. And the same year, Bella Abzug knocked off Weiss’ 1966 opponent, Leonard Farbstein. (Weiss himself was finally elected to Congress in 1976.) But of equal significance to the groundwork laid for these specific later electoral victories was the role these and other early antiwar candidacies played in opening public debate about the pro-war attitude then dominating Washington.
We still have a reasonable amount of time to consider the potential value of anti-Afghanistan War candidacies before the 2010 primaries are upon us. We have seen several successful anti-Iraq War campaigns mounted over the past couple of election cycles, but we’ve also seen candidacies muddied by opposition that was seemingly limited to war policies emanating from a Republican President. And as we now know, many of those candidates do not oppose the seemingly never-ending Afghanistan War and its expansion into Pakistan – at least not so long as a Democrat is President.
(While I am obviously taking the point of view that the structure of the American political system makes participation in the Democratic Party a sensible course of action, I hope that those who consider that foolish or even reprehensible will attempt to demonstrate the rightness of their point of view not in debate but in creating the types of third party or independent anti-Afghanistan War candidacies they think are called for.)
And of course, there’s nothing at all that dictates that antiwar candidacies limit themselves to the discussion of that war or that there be any one “look” to them. While Afghanistan may be and remain a remote concern for most Americans, the ongoing economic crisis is not. And while it and the simultaneously developing environmental crisis cry out that we’re in a world altering era, the American government seems set to lumber forward in its traditional rut unless we find a way to give voice to a world altering alternative.
The need for change all across the nation’s political and economic landscape is as obvious as it’s ever been, from finance to health care to transportation to the very way things are made. And yet there is a sense in which the Afghanistan War is central to all of this. Anyone who thinks the US can and should continue racking up half the military spending of the entire world and considers it reasonable to continue bombing countries half way across the planet in order to thwart Osama bin Laden will endorse the Afghanistan War. Anyone who recognizes that America must find a new way in the world will not. Our challenge is to make that clear in the next election cycle. We don’t have forever.