On C-SPAN’s invaluable Washington Journal, patriotic callers frequently despair that Americans won’t rally behind their president in a time of war. But Americans don’t do that. They don’t suspend politics "for the duration." They punish the war party for war—for getting the country into it, for its objectives, conduct, duration, inconveniences, and cost.
In 1862, the Democrats ran against the Lincoln administration’s violation of civil liberties (though the Constitution permits the suspension of habeas corpus rights during "rebellion"), against the failure of Lincoln’s generals, above all against the Emancipation Proclamation, which Lincoln issued after the equivocal northern victory at Antietam that September. The Democrats had no stomach for a war against slavery. A campaign slogan proposed by an Ohio Democrat mirrors their sentiments: "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the Niggers where they are." Democrats in Washington were not palpably unsympathetic to the treasonous wing of their party in Richmond, yet this Copperhead party won thirty-four House seats, administering what a contemporary called "a most serious and severe reproof" to Lincoln’s Republicans and the Allied Union Party.
In 1918, with the Kaiser’s army retreating into Germany and only days to go before the Armistice, the Republicans captured both houses of Congress from the Democrats, winning twenty-five House and five Senate seats. The GOP victory nullified President Woodrow Wilson’s objective in the war—to join the United States in a "concert of nations" to keep the peace so that "this terrible task will not have to be done once more." Wilson invoked the memory of the war dead—"Do not forget the forlorn homes from which those boys went out…. Ask any soldier if he wants to go through a hell like that again"—but in vain. The Republicans bemoan the "perfect storm" of troubles confronting them this year, much as the Democrats felt fate turning on them in 1918. Already weakened by anti-war backlash, the Democrats saw the deaths of eight of their senators during the sixty-fifth Congress of 1916–1918. If only one of them, Wisconsin’s Paul O. Husting, had not been killed in a duck-hunting accident, the Democrats would have held the Senate and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge would not have become Majority Leader and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In Wilson’s words, Lodge would not have been in a position to" br[eak] the heart of the world" by blocking U.S. entry into the League of Nations.
The defeat of so many members of the war party less than a year after Pearl Harbor may surprise Americans smitten with "the good war," a Capra-esque fable in which Americans united behind their president to defeat Hitler and Tojo. They didn’t unite behind FDR; many blamed him for Pearl Harbor. September 11 was George Bush’s Pearl Harbor, but in the congressional election of 2002 his party added to its majority in the House and took back the Senate from the Democrats. Did 2002 mean Americans had stopped punishing the war party in congressional elections? No. Other than bombing crews pounding Afghanistan from the safety of the skies and a few soldiers and CIA operatives marking targets on the ground, U.S. forces were not engaged in combat in November 2002.