The loyal opposition — then and now

Yesterday, I disputed Thomas Friedman’s claim that, in President Bush’s place, FDR would not make an issue of the call by the opposing political party (or at least key elements thereof) to abandon Iraq and to limit the use of various surveillance techniques reasonably calculated to protect homeland security. The more interesting question (though Friedman appears uninterested) is whether, in the modern Democratic party’s place, the Republican party of the early 1940s would act as the Dems are doing now.

Jeffrey Lord’s look at the 1942 congressional elections provides insight into both questions. As to the first, Lord notes that those few Republican Senators who remained isolationists were attacked as such, and that the Democrats reminded voters of the Republican party’s isolationist tendencies of the previous decade. I regard these attacks as entirely appropriate.

For their part, the Republicans rallied behind Roosevelt and the war. Many believed that Roosevelt was guilty of incompetence or worse in connection with the attack on Pearl Harbor. And God knows that many hated FRD. But according to Lord, the Republicans declined to run a campaign of “Roosevelt lied and people died.” Instead, they focused on domestic issues.

There are, of course, important differences between 1942 and 2006. The Republicans of 1942 believed we should fight World War II; today many Democrats do not think we should continue to fight in Iraq. And the wars themselves, though analogous in some respects, are clearly different. If the Republicans had thought that fighting World War II was the wrong thing to do, I assume they would have said so.

Nonetheless, the distinction Lord draws between the conduct of the two parties is valid. To appreciate its validity, it’s instructive to think more in terms of 2004 than 2006. At that time, most Democrats were still publicly backing the war, and the idea of withdrawal pursuant to a timetable had not gained currency. But the Democrats, far from rallying behind the war effort, attacked the administration at every turn — Bush deceived the public on WMD; Bush had no plan for post-conquest Iraq; Bush let bin Laden get away in the mountains of Afghanistan; Bush didn’t see to it that the explosives at Al Qaqaa were properly disposed of; Bush didn’t figure out in advance how intense post-conquest resistance to the U.S. would be; Bush is responsible for the sexual frolic of national guard personnel at Abu Ghraib, etc, etc.

Lord’s account shows that the Republicans behaved far more honorably than that during the dark days of 1942.

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