Lessons from Wars
Both Republicans and Democrats have learned that Americans get impatient when a war goes on too long. About 3 years – four, max – is usually the public’s limit. After that, the game-table sometimes gets kicked over and radical political changes can result. The public was sick of both the Civil War and WWII after four years of fighting, but both conflicts finished up in the nick of time, before things got ugly.
Democrats weren’t as lucky with the Korean and Vietnam wars. Korea – coming so soon after WWII – was unpopular, and became less so after Red China threw in 300,000 fresh troops and forced our army to retreat at Chosin Reservoir in bitterly cold conditions. After President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur because he wanted to bomb North Korea and China, the war became a stalemate. In the ’52 election General Dwight Eisenhower busted the Democrats’ Solid South and won by a landslide. Republicans also took the House and the Senate. It was the last Republican-controlled House until 1994.
Americans were wary about another Asian land-war (Vietnam) only a decade after Korea. Advised by his Ivy-league Whiz Kids to go slow, to avoid arousing the Chinese and the Soviet Union, LBJ dragged the war out far too long. The Viet Cong’s celebrated “Tet Offensive,” in 1968 – militarily disastrous for the Cong, but wildly successful, politically – discouraged President Johnson from seeking another term. It energized a noisy anti-war movement that split the Democratic Party and elected Richard Nixon.
Mr. Nixon promised to end the war, but Ho Chi Minh & Co. were wise to Americans’ impatience with long wars. They dragged peace-talks out to 1973, until the war became “Nixon’s War.” The anti-war faction took center stage and weakened Mr. Nixon. That weakness might have led him to authorize the burglary of Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate, which eventually caused his downfall. After a two-year “rest period,” North Vietnamese regulars stormed into Saigon and knocked over South Vietnam, while a powerless Gerald Ford and an exhausted America public watched it all happen.
There were lessons for both parties in the political fallout from these wars, but not everyone learned them. President George W. Bush’s slow-mo war against terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan – a consequence of his reluctance to wage “total war” – wearied the public and ultimately produced:
- Wholesale conversion of the Democratic Party to the anti-war party;
- Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress (2006); and
- A peacenik Democrat president (2009-2017) who believed he was elected to “end wars.”
But Americans dislike losing wars even more than they dislike long wars. President Obama’s politically motivated withdrawals from regions which our soldiers had subdued at dear cost, plus a sluggish economy, were factors in the 2016 political convulsion that shocked the political establishment – indeed, the world – by electing Donald Trump and a Republican Congress.
Besides reacting to long wars and lost wars, the American people also react very strongly to domestic chaos. That facet of our national character has produced radical political change at several junctures in our history. Some key turning points are summarized below.
The Great Depression and the Normalcy Legend
The 1929 stock-market crash, followed by four years of economic depression and chaos, caused a huge political upheaval which produced:
- FDR, the first (and only) 4-term president in our history;
- The New Deal;
- 20 consecutive years of Democrat presidents;
- 8 Democrat presidential terms out of the next twelve;
- Six decades of nearly continuous Democrat majorities in the Congress.
Democrats ran the country for so long during the 20th century that they came to believe that this was normal. Republican governance was regarded as an “anomaly” that demanded correction at the earliest moment. News organs bought the idea and slanted their political coverage accordingly. And a large segment of the public came to agree. Millions of children grew up knowing nothing else.
Dwight Eisenhower threw a spanner into the gears. The public was sick of the Korean War, and the general was so popular that his election was unstoppable. Some pundits tried to paint him as a doddering old soldier who was out of touch with modern times. Ike was politically invulnerable, but the age-issue did set the stage for John Kennedy’s 1960 youth-blitz. A disastrous four-month strike by the Steelworkers’ Union in late 1959 also caused a recession which damaged Richard Nixon’s electoral chances.
JFK and LBJ
The dashing JFK won by a whisker to restore Democratic “normalcy.” Election-fraud was widely suspected, so President Eisenhower urged Richard Nixon to demand an investigation. But Mr. Nixon declined, saying that it would “hurt the country.” Camelot II was launched by a young Irishman’s charm and good looks. “Happy days [were] here again…”
Unfortunately, JFK was neither FDR nor King Arthur. He was the Playboy of the Western World – carrying on affairs with actress Marilyn Monroe and a Mafio’s mistress.1 At a chance meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961, Mr. Kennedy impressed the Soviet tough guy as a wet-behind-the-ears frat-boy who could be rolled. The result was the 1962 Cuban Missile-crisis, which took us to the brink of war. Some historians believe that attempts on Fidel Castro’s life – ordered by JFK’s brother, Robert – might have led to JFK’s assassination in November 1963.
Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s successor got the economy moving by signing JFK’s tax-reduction package into law. He also channeled FDR’s New Deal with expensive Great Society programs. JFK had placed several thousand military “advisors” in Vietnam, but LBJ took us to war after North Vietnamese gunboats reportedly fired on a U. S. Naval vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin – an “event” which may not have occurred at all. This made LBJ look “warlike,” just before the election. But historians have wondered, ever since, why he did it, since the JFK sympathy-vote virtually guaranteed his election. Whatever he thought, LBJ’s decision to wage war in Indo China was disastrous for both his presidency and his party.
LBJ wasn’t Ike. His “gradualism” strategy produced a drawn-out, no-win jungle-war that chewed up our young men, energized an anti-war movement, rattled the public, and wrecked his presidency. Racial de-segregation in the South also produced domestic chaos that fractured the Democratic Party, lost five southern states to George Wallace, and ensured Richard Nixon’s ’68 election.
War on Republicans
Having had a soft spot for Soviet-style communism since the 1930s, Democrats never forgave Mr. Nixon for his anti-Communist zeal on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s. Although he engineered rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China in 1971 and supported seating the PRC on the UN Security Council in place of Formosa, none of that assuaged his enemies’ hatred. When the Watergate story broke, they pounced and never let up until they had driven Mr. Nixon out of office.
The destruction of Richard Nixon set a new model for Democrats’ future treatment of every Republican president and presidential candidate. Gerald Ford became their next target. A respected, moderate Republican, Mr. Ford’s long career was based on aisle-crossing comity and reasoned statesmanship. But Democrats and their media pals despised him for pardoning Richard Nixon and depriving them of the chance to humiliate their hated enemy. Democrat-allied media spitefully made it their mission to brand Mr. Ford as a “stumblebum” – turning the finest athlete ever to sit in the Oval Office into a permanent object of derision. Young people who think Mr. Ford was our clumsiest president ever have no idea that he was a 1930s pro football prospect, a scratch-golfer and a skier well into his 70s. That despicable smear-job showed Democrats what was possible with the media on their side.
The Crash of Normalcy
Democrats hoped normalcy had returned when Governor Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. But Mr. Carter’s attempt to make his administration a flagship of born-again Christianity got the horselaugh from Big Media and from most of his party. His attempt to micro-manage government also failed: inflation soared to 12%; mortgage rates hit 17%; and the economy descended into “malaise.” Mr. Carter supported deposing the Shah of Iran and imposing Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic regime, but he was repaid by Iran holding 52 of our embassy staff hostage for 444 days. A botched attempt to free the hostages in mid-1980 failed spectacularly, and Mr. Carter’s presidency was toast.
The Reagan Revolution
The collapse of the Carter presidency produced Ronald Reagan’s election and a sea-change in American politics. Democrats were aghast that voters they thought were sold on Democratic Normalcy had elected a “dumb actor who was just reading lines.” They launched a full-throated war of words against the actor-turned-politician, hoping to convince voters that they had made a terrible mistake. Mr. Reagan was “too old;” he dozed at cabinet meetings; he was a “figurehead”; somebody else was running the country; he was a nutty “cowboy” who might pull the nuclear trigger; yadda, yadda, yadda.
But it was no use. The president had an actor’s thick skin and a natural wit. The media couldn’t help themselves. They loved the guy – especially when he turned every barb into a joke and made them laugh at themselves. At death’s door after being shot by a would-be assassin, Mr. Reagan asked an ER nurse if she was a Republican. And during a 1984 debate with Walter Mondale he declared that he absolutely would not use his opponent’s “obvious youth and inexperience” against him. (Even Mr. Mondale cracked up.)
But Ronald Reagan was more than a quick wit. He had a clear vision for the country: we were a “shining city on a hill;” a beacon of hope to the world. He worked with the Speaker of the House, fellow-Irishman Tip O’Neil, to cut taxes and get the economy moving. And he launched the Strategic Defense Initiative to protect us from ICBM-attack. The huge success of his presidency buried Democratic Normalcy and replaced it with a new Republican Vision. But it was only a recess in the Democrats’ War on all Republican presidents.
Fumbling the Torch
Ronald Reagan passed the Reagan vision’s torch to Vice President George H. W. Bush, who called it “the vision-thing.” But Mr. Bush was too “establishment” to keep the flame lit. He pitched a “kinder, gentler” Republican governance – as though full employment, low taxes and 4% annual growth were “deficiencies” that demanded correction. After standing up to Saddam Hussein and kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait, Mr. Bush looked unbeatable. But he threw it all away by letting himself get snookered into raising taxes in exchange for spending cuts that never materialized.
This mistake produced a brief recession which allowed virtually unknown Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton to run against “the worst economy since the Great Depression.” HW thought it was a ridiculous charge, but young people who wouldn’t have known the Great Depression from the Great Gatsby bought it. Zillionaire Ross Perot attracted Republicans who were upset over Mr. Bush’s tax-betrayal, enabling Bill to slip in the back door with 43% of the vote. Billy-boy had a shot at reviving Democratic Normalcy, but he couldn’t keep his pants on. His antics in the Oval Office with a fetching young intern crashed the last two years of his tenure and probably kept Vice-president Al Gore from winning the office.
War without end
George W. Bush squeaked into the presidency by 537 Florida-votes out of some six million cast. Democrats’ attempts to engineer selective recounts in several Florida counties were ultimately halted by the U. S. Supreme Court, and Mr. Bush carried the election with 271 electoral votes, to Al Gore’s 266. To make matters worse, Mr. Gore actually won the national “popular vote” by over 547,000 votes out of 102 million cast. Outraged Democrats never forgave Mr. Bush for “stealing” the election.
From that point onward, it was all war, all the time, on Mr. Bush. Democrats and Republicans linked arms and sang “God Bless America” after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. But this temporary unity was quickly forgotten. Democrats attacked every aspect of Mr. Bush’s governance and his war on terror. By 2004 the charges were flying thick and fast. Mr. Bush beat off a challenge by Senator John Kerry to win a second term, after a letter released by reporter Dan Rather – supposedly showing that Mr. Bush had disobeyed a military order in 1975 – was shown to be a fake.
During Mr. Bush’s second term, things got uglier. Democrats accused him of lying to get us into the war against Iraq. “Bush lied, people died” was ceaseless repeated on broadcast media and by politicians angling for control of the Congress. During all this, Mr. Bush either forgot about (or didn’t comprehend) Americans’ dislike of long wars, so he gradually lost public support by conducting a drawn-out war on the cheap. In 2006, Democrats capitalized on war-weariness to gain control of both houses of Congress. And after the banking collapse and Great Recession of 2008 they won the presidency, too.
Barack Obama swept into office on a wave of optimism and good feeling. Here, at last, was (in Joe Biden’s words) “a mainstream African-American…articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy…” An excited Chris Matthews said a “thrill” went up his leg when he heard this new messiah proclaim his vision for the country. Another reporter marveled at the impeccable crease in Obama’s trousers. It was a miracle – almost a rapture. Everything was going to be great…until it wasn’t.
Our first African-American president wielded the powers of the presidency more adroitly than any chief executive since FDR. But under FDR’s hare-brained socialist theories, Obama’s mighty efforts produced only mediocre economic growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages, government-controlled health-care, failed “green jobs” initiatives, a doubled national debt, and blame thrown fifteen ways from Sunday. His incautious withdrawal of troops from still-dangerous regions that our forces had controlled gave defeated Al Qaida forces time to reform as ISIS. And on the racial front, the ministrations of Mr. Obama and his consiglieri, Eric “Don Corleone” Holder, produced racial unrest and bad feeling which, by some analysts’ estimates, set race-relations back fifty years.
Big Media and the bi-partisan political “establishment” mostly gave Mr. Obama’s tumultuous eight-year regime a pass. They seemed entirely OK with an “Obama third term,” under the firm (but sensitive) guidance of the lovely Hillary. Identity politics would prevail. It was a “sure thing” – 94% in the bag – no problemo. Obama’s legacy would be intact. Everything would be fine.
But The People weren’t buying. Instead of a coronation, Hillary Clinton received a historic drubbing. And onto the attack went the Never Trumpers – a bi-partisan faction determined to raise so much hell and create so much chaos that the upstart interloper would have no chance to unroll whatever scurrilous agenda he had planned. History had convinced the anti-Trump crowd that continual chaos could cause unsettled voters to reject Mr. Trump and throw him out – if not via impeachment, at least by denying him a second term. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation into Mr. Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia to steal the election was just the first act. The Chaos Strategy gave Democrats the House, and there’s no sign of it stopping.
Thus did the Chaos Strategy grow to its present grotesque form. Our Governing Compact is shattered. Mr. Trump will not be allowed the latitude to govern, and there will be no peace while he holds office. Once-respected broadcast organs spew vile calumnies, and members of Congress hurl accusations never before heard in those chambers. Rational debate is impossible. Civil disagreement is gone. It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.
Only the American People can set things right. The question is: Will they? Or is it too late? We shall see.
- Judith Campbell Exner was reputed to be the mistress of Mafia Don Sam Giancana.