The Ghost of Gerald Ford


Juan Cole on why Iraq could spell political doom ... for the Democrats.

If the Democrats cannot prevail in withdrawing before Bush goes out of office (and they cannot), and if they then rapidly draw down the troops on taking office in 2009, they face the real prospect of a "Gerald Ford meltdown" of the sort that occurred in 1975 when the North Vietnamese and their VC allies took over South Vietnam.

You will note that Ford only served a couple of years as president and lost his election bid to a relative unknown named Jimmy Carter. Although economic stagflation and the stain of Watergate contributed to his defeat, I think the spectacle of the debacle in Indochina harmed Ford a great deal. The United States lost a war, and lost out to its ideological rival in an entire subcontinent of Asia in the midst of the Cold War. That would cause at least some Republicans to stay home in 1976, a sure way for Democrats to win an election.

Could 2010 look for Iraq like 1975 looked in Vietnam? Yes. I just do not see evidence that either the new Iraqi political class or the Iraqi security forces are likely to have the maturity to avoid a conflagration when the US military withdraws.

... In all likelihood, when the Democratic president pulls US troops out in summer of 2009, all hell is going to break loose. The consequences may include even higher petroleum prices than we have seen recently, which at some point could bring back stagflation or very high rates of inflation.

In other words, the Democratic president risks being Fordized when s/he withdraws from Iraq, by the aftermath. A one-term president associated with humiliation abroad and high inflation at home? Maybe I should say, Carterized. The Republican Party could come back strong in 2012 and then dominate politics for decades, if that happened.

Such an outcome is possible, but is it really plausible? It assumes, to begin with, that the next President will effect an immediate, tails-between-our-legs withdrawal, when everything the Democratic candidates are saying a much more slow-moving retreat. I think it's safe to say we won't have 150,000 troops in Iraq two years into a Hillary administration, but I wouldn't be surprised if we have 80,000 troops there, or more; as long as the public has a sense that the numbers are trending downward, I tend to think that the Robb calculus is more or less correct. And I think Cole's wrong, as well, to suggest that the Democrats will "own" whatever chaos follows in the wake of a drawdown of U.S. forces. That might have been true had John Kerry won the White House in '04 and attempted a hasty exit, but at this point the public's sense of Iraq-as-disaster is so deeply associated with George W. Bush that I'm hard-pressed to imagine it turning on a dime once he's out of office.

I suppose if there's a dramatic turnaround over the next year, with violence dropping rapidly and political compromises flowering in the desert, and then a Democrat takes office and withdraws American troops, and then everything goes to hell again, the public might blame the Democratic Party for the chaos ... but that seems like one of the least likely of possible futures. (Not least because a dramatic turnaround in Iraq over the next year would dramatically reduce the Democrats' chances of winning the White House in the first place.)

Moreover, the Ford analogy actually cuts in the opposite direction from what Cole intends (which is probably why he switches to Carter near the end of the post). Yes, Ford's Republican Party took a short-term hit for ending the Vietnam War the way it did. But the Democratic Party didn't "dominate politics for decades" after Ford lost in 1976; instead, their victory proved a temporary reversal of a larger rightward turn. If there's any lesson that today's politicians should draw from the Ford-Carter-Reagan years (and there probably isn't) it's that the party that's most associated with a losing war tends to suffer the most in the long run - which meant the Democrats with Vietnam, and the Republicans with Iraq.

To my mind, the most likely way that Iraq hurts the Democrats politically isn't through a 1975-style backlash among swing voters if retreat leads to chaos; rather, it's through a backlash among left-wing voters - the crowd, I mean - if President Hillary Clinton doesn't pull the troops out fast enough. Nancy Pelosi is already grappling with this problem to some extent, and the fissures within the Democratic Party are only likely to widen if the party controls all three branches of government, and we still have a large military presence in Iraq. But that's a problem for the long run, and one that a capable Democratic President should be able to contain.

Photo courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library.