Antiwar sentiment ran high as bloody news arrived from the war zone day after day. The Democratic platform declared the war a "failure," demanding its end. It looked like a bad year for Republicans.
A young Republican congressman, a veteran who had won fame on the battlefield, stumped across all-important Ohio. He did not like the incumbent Republican president. But there was no way he wanted a Democrat elected.
"Why is the war a failure to them?" this congressman asked on the stump. "It is only a failure because if it succeeds they fail."
Does that raw rhetoric sound familiar? The year was 1864. The congressman was James Garfield, who as a young colonel had led Union forces on a victorious campaign in Kentucky, winning promotion to general. The quote from Garfield’s 1864 stump speech is reported in "Garfield," Allan Peskin’s biography of the man who later became our 20th president.
In the summer of 1864, Democrats banked on riding antiwar sentiment into the White House. But in September, Atlanta fell and political momentum shifted.
Abraham Lincoln won re-election.
The Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC last week provided evidence that at least some Democrats are now wary of positioning their party in 2008 as it was in 1864. The three top-tier candidates refused to pledge to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2013, the end of their would-be first term.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois would only pledge to "reduce our presence there to the mission of protecting our embassy, protecting our civilians and making sure that we’re carrying out counterterrorism activities there." Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York concurred. "It may require combat, Special Operations Forces or some other form of that, but the vast majority of our combat troops should be out," she said.
Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina also would not commit to removing all troops by 2013. Nonetheless, he argued that what Clinton advocated was "continuation of the war," while what he advocated was not. When moderator Tim Russert pressed him, however, Edwards appeared to concede that he would also continue the war in the face of certain contingencies.
"Would you send combat troops back in if there was genocide?" asked Russert.
"I think the president of the United States — and I as president — would have a responsibility, as we begin to bring our combat troops out of Iraq, to prepare for two possibilities," said Edwards in part of his long answer to Russert. "One is the possibility that — the worst possibility — which is that genocide breaks out, Shia try to systematically eliminate the Sunni. I think we need to be preparing for that with the international community now, not wait. And second, the possibility that this war starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq."
Edwards seemed to concede, in other words, that his withdrawal policy could precipitate two unacceptable outcomes that would require him to abandon the withdrawal.
So, here is another question for the Democratic candidates: What if it becomes indisputable that the surge is working?
Last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, testified that overall attacks there have been declining. Government Accountability Office data backed him. The Defense Department is now reporting that combated-related casualties in Iraq dropped to 41 in September, the lowest monthly total since July 2006.
A rational basis for skepticism about the surge remains, of course. What if Iraq’s sectarian politicians don’t exploit the enhanced security created by our military and fail to advance Sunni-Shiite reconciliation? The divided and buffoonishly led Iraqi parliament has failed to pass a single major "benchmark" aimed at that purpose.
Yet, other indicators do point to political progress. As Petraeus told Congress, Sunni tribal leaders have joined with our military to drive al-Qaida out of Anbar, and Shiite warlord-clergyman Moqtada Sadr has called on his militia to suspend its activities.
Then last week, another thing happened. Iraq’s Shiite Deputy President Adil Abd-al-Mahdi, a member of the Islamist party formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, made state visits to Sunni Egypt and Sunni Jordan. There was a Nixon goes to China aspect to this: Abd-al-Mahdi’s party, founded in Iran under the inspiration of Ayatollah Khomeini, has been the most entrenched political foe of unreconciled Sunnis.
In a televised press conference in Jordan, Abd-al-Mahdi said the surge was leading to both security and political improvements. "It goes without saying that increasing the number of troops has contributed to the enhancement of security," he said. "Many forces that used to carry arms now believe that political cooperation is the only way for the future." He argued this "allows trust to return among the Iraqis."
Abd-al-Mahdi is positioning himself to be the cross-sectarian leader of a unified Iraq. If the diminishing trend in violence continues, and Abd-al-Mahdi or someone like him gains traction, will Democratic presidential candidates give him, and the U.S. policy that made him possible, credit and support?
Or will they succumb to the temptation to fall back on their 1864 platform?