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When Principle May Be the Best Policy

by Nancy C. Unger on Sep 1, 2006

Nancy C. Unger

Many Democrats are wringing their hands over the defeat of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, whose long-faithful Connecticut constituents rejected him for his support of the pro-war policies of President Bush. Many pundits say that despite record-low ratings for the current Republican administration the Democratic Party may self-destruct during the coming elections because it’s becoming softer on the war. We’ll have to wait until November to see if they’re right, but we can say now that incumbents should never take their constituents’ loyalty for granted.

History offers striking examples of the wisdom of candidates taking a stance on war, not to gain the approval of other politicians or, alternatively, to avoid their wrath, or even to curry favor with their constituents, but simply because they felt compelled to follow their own heartfelt convictions.

In his victorious campaign over Lieberman in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat, Ned Lamont proclaimed, “‘Stay the course': that’s not a winning strategy in Iraq, and it’s not a winning strategy for America.” Charges that such anti-war Democrats are increasingly pacifist and isolationist emanate not just from Lieberman, but from other war advocates eager to paint all opposition as cowardly and a danger to national security.

In contrast with his support of Lieberman, Vice President Richard Cheney claims that Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha’s proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq would validate Al-Qaida strategy and invite future attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s latest fear tactics include claims that those critical of the administration are akin to the U.S. political figures who, before World War II, advocated negotiating with Hitler.

Equating opposition to a war with fraternizing with the enemy and even with betrayal is hardly new. When Wisconsin’s Republican Sen. Robert La Follette blocked the first effort on the floor of Congress to bring the United States into World War I in 1917, President Wilson charged him with rendering his nation “helpless and contemptible.” Wilson’s fellow Democrats were quick to label as treason La Follette’s continued efforts to keep his nation out of war.

The Democrats’ charges were echoed by leading members of La Follette’s own party. Former president Theodore Roosevelt called La Follette a liar and a “sinister enemy of democracy.” Minnesota Sen. Frank Kellogg charged La Follette with aiding and encouraging the enemy while casting dishonor and discredit on his own nation. Kellogg and Roosevelt joined another Republican, former President Taft, in calling for La Follette’s expulsion from the Senate.

La Follette refused to be moved by even the denunciations from within his own party. During the peak of the pro-war frenzy he was spat upon in public and burned in effigy. But even before he was re-elected, when asked if he had any regrets about his outspoken opposition, the senator answered somberly, “I just couldn’t vote for this war.”

Today some members of Congress, including California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein, openly regret their initial support of the war in Iraq. To them, colleagues who continue to claim that our ongoing commitment to the war demands unquestioning support look less like thoughtful foreign policy strategists and more like those who have simply lost their moral compass. War opponents increasingly find themselves echoing the philosophy of Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the nation’s first congresswoman. Rankin, who had joined La Follette in voting against U.S. entry into the war in 1917, said simply, “When you’re doing something wrong, you stop.”

Although Rankin lost her seat in the House as a result of her anti-war vote, she never regretted her steadfast opposition to World War I, a war briefer and far more popular with the general public than Iraq is today. Feinstein’s change of heart may well ease her way to keeping her Senate seat come re-election time this November. La Follette not only remained in office, but lived long enough to accept the apologies of many of his colleagues who came to appreciate the wisdom of his opposition to the war.

Rather than fret about any imagined negative impact on party unity, Lieberman’s constituents made the Democratic primary a referendum on the war. There are opportunities forthcoming for other Democrats to hold similar referendums. In the ninth congressional district of Massachusetts, for example, Democratic incumbent Stephen Lynch, who warns against “cutting and running” in Iraq, is running against political newcomer and war opponent Philip Dunkelbarger. In the third district of La Follette’s home state of Wisconsin, Democratic incumbent Ron Kind, war supporter, is being challenged by Chip DeNure, who has joined Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin in demanding that the United States cease prolonging a war that does not promote security at home or abroad.

Even previously steadfast supporters of the war can shift loyalties. Candidates will be best served by not trying to second guess their constituents or be intimidated by political name-calling. Sen. La Follette’s principled position is evidence that standing firm for one’s genuine convictions is the wisest campaign strategy of all.

Nancy C. Unger is associate professor of history at Santa Clara University. She is author of “Beyond Nature’s Housekeepers: American Women in Environmental History” (Oxford University Press, 2012).