The last election was all about the war, a referendum on a policy that has led us ever deeper into the Middle East, and the verdict was clear: the voters have had enough. In the interim, however, we've had a veritable D-Day-style propaganda campaign, designed to fool the public into believing that the so-called "surge" has worked, we're on the path to a "drawdown," and never mind that--look over here!
Whether that worked, or not, is the real back story--or, at least, a fascinating aspect--of this election season.
The lesson, almost universally acknowledged, of the last electoral go-round was that the American people want out of Iraq--a sentiment a majority of Iowa Republicans tend to agree with. Yet sentiment doesn't translate easily into a political campaign, or support for a particular candidate.
The Democratic field presents a variety of problems for antiwar voters. Up until very recently, none of the Big Three took an unequivocal "out now" stance, and it is doubtful that Edwards's late conversion will give him the credibility with justifiably skeptical antiwar voters. Bill Richardson and Joe Biden appear to be campaigning for an office other than President, basically running against each other for secretary of state. Dennis Kucinich has not been running a serious campaign this time around, unfortunately, and has added injury to insult by telling his supporters to vote for Barack Obama in the second round in Iowa.
A vote for Hillary represents a vote for the war, and the indefinite occupation of Iraq, just as much as a vote for, say, Rudy Giuliani or John McCain. Her foreign policy advisors, while not outright militarists like their neoconservative cousins, are internationalists of an assertive sort. Far from getting us out of Iraq, she is not only likely to sign on to a long occupation--without being completely honest about it, natch--but is also quite capable of launching her own wars of "liberation," and not only in the Middle East. Perhaps she'll prove herself as commander-in-chief by going after an easy target--and if I were a Serb, or a Russian, I'd be worried. As an American, I'm horrified, and especially given her ominous lack of concern for civil liberties: here, after all, is someone who really believes the internet needs to be "moderated."
Obama is a diversion away from the war issue, and away from the central issue of this election, which is foreign policy. For all the "inspirational" rhetoric and Oprah-esque hype, on this question Obama presents nothing very different from the usual "mainstream" Democratic pap, except perhaps in the direction of a scary recklessness (e.g. his remarks on Pakistan and Iran). For the Democrats's ostensible "antiwar" candidate to have essentially endorsed him renders principled anti-interventionist voters essentially voiceless--or, in many cases, speechless. Kucinich should have followed up on the logic of his earlier pronouncement that he would like to run on a ticket with Republican antiwar candidate and internet fundraising phenomenon Ron Paul.
Paul's campaign has been a shot in the arm for the antiwar movement: not only is he the only GOP candidate who effectively debunks the rationale for the war, but he also challenges our empire-building project in the Middle East and wants our troops--worldwide--to come home. Alone among the candidates of either party, he presents a comprehensive analysis of why we are where we are, and how to get out. One may disagree with the particulars of his program--which locates the growth of militarism in an economy increasingly linked to permanent war and inflation of the money supply--but about one thing we can be fairly sure: unlike their equivalents in the Democratic party, antiwar voters in Republican primaries are certainly not voiceless. Rep. Paul, a ten-term congressman from Texas with an endearing self-effacing manner (he's the anti-Giuliani, and not just ideologically), is a very effective spokesman for his point of view, and he is certainly getting a hearing. With lots of money in the bank--the result of his phenomenal grassroots internet-based fundraising effort, none of which is connected to the "official" campaign--he has the means to get his message out, and he has been given a forum--albeit not by Fox News.
He needn't worry about his exclusion from the Fox "forum": if Fred Thompson does as badly as everyone expects, and drops out, there may be room in that Fox News "campaign bus" after all--and they'll have to think of another excuse. Yet the power of Fox and the neocons (or do I repeat myself?) to define the GOP agenda, and set the terms of the internal debate over the meaning of conservatism, is fast waning, and their effect on the Republican race is negligible.
Iowa is a crucial test for the Paul campaign: if they can't do well there--by coming in at least fourth, beating out Giuliani as well as Thompson, then my question is; where can they do well? This is a caucus, not a regular election, and involves the kind of commitment that the Paulistas have a surfeit of: in addition, if you look at the caucus voting rules, you'll note that it's relatively easy for a determined and well-organized minority to have a disproportionate impact. The polls are all over the place, but at least one--Zogby--has him tied for third with McCain and Thompson. The very real possibility that Paul could garner 15 percent--while Thompson fails to achieve what he has defined as the bare minimum required for him to stay in the race--could and should be the big story coming out of Iowa. On the other hand, failure to break out of single digits should cause the Paul camp to start asking where they went wrong.
However, Iowa is just the beginning, as far as the Paul campaign is concerned. They have the money,and the activist organization to carry on a long, guerrilla-style campaign right up to the convention, and that, I predict, is precisely what they will do. Coming into New Hampshire, however, Paul faces a definitive test. If he stays in single digits, he'll be relegated to the sidelines rather quickly. He's been hovering just around 10 percent in the New Hampshire polls, and a strong showing in Iowa would likely carry him over that threshhold.
The unadorned fact of the matter is that if Paul can't do reasonably well in the two contests most suited to his campaign--a caucus environment that measures enthusiasm as much as name recognition, and anti-tax anti-government New Hampshire, where independents can vote in either party primary--then he is unlikely to succeed anywhere. In that event, Paul's supporters will have to take stock of their options, and subject their political assumptions to a witheringly realistic assessment.
In the absence of an electoral breakthrough in either Iowa or New Hampshire, Paul's supporters will have to ask themselves whether their candidate's brand of right-wing populism (and I mean that in a good way) failed to assemble a coalition with enough independents and antiwar Democrats to make a difference. Is it that the GOP is, for all intents and purposes, brain-dead, with independents and others so alienated from it that they refuse to vote even for a Republican with impeccably antiwar credentials?
As I write, the Iowa caucus is just beginning: and so it is a bit early for anyone to be assessing where the Paul,campaign went wrong. My own expectations, however, have never been all that high, for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the candidate or the campaign. I tend to believe that the Republican party is so far gone that it is beyond redemption. I am hopeful, however, that my natural pessimism is here misplaced: and, in any event, it seems clear to me that the Paul campaign is not just going to go away. A third party movement is an option: Paul has already been offered the nomination of the Libertarian Party, whose banner he carried in 1988. This time, however, such an effort would have far greater significance, possibly prefiguring the break-up of the old Reaganite conservative coalition and signaling the decline of the GOP as a national political force.
Regardless of the outcome in Iowa, and beyond, antiwar activists on the left and the right have got to understand that this is a protracted conflict: there is no magic bullet that will fell the War Party, or drive it from power. Our strategy must be to keep our heads down, and soldier on, come what may: hope for best, be prepared for the worst, and come out fighting.
© PROMETHEUS 127/2008
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin - News, Politics, Art and Science. Nr. 127, January 2008