The Democratic leadership is pushing vigorously for further confrontation with the Bush administration over a timetable for a pullout. They clearly seem to think they have a winner for themselves in the political sense, whatever the fallout for Iraq itself.
There are two very important differences, however. One is the fact that the war in Iraq is arguably far more important than Vietnam ever was, and the second has to do with how much support the Democrats have for their Iraq agenda.
Don’t get me wrong; in human terms both wars were/are very important, and the regional bloodbath that followed our withdrawal from Vietnam was probably just as large as the one that would follow our withdrawal from Iraq. But although the North Vietnamese were a featured part of the lengthy global battle between Communism and capitalist liberal democracies known as the Cold War, and defeat there had an effect on the duration of that struggle, a pullout in Iraq would have even more direct consequences for the US. It would embolden an enemy far more apocalyptic in its goals and far more able to bring the war directly to us in terms of terrorism.
Therefore, the stakes now are more immediate, and higher, for the US itself, although the Democratic leadership is bent on denying that fact.
The second difference is the amount of support the Democrats have for their approach. Polls from February (the most recent ones I could find that contained some all-important details) put support for a pullout timetable at 53%, not a huge margin. And this margin was soft: only 46% of those who favored a pullout wanted it to be accomplished within a year (a year, that is, of February). The rest—54% of those who favored a pullout—wanted it to be more gradual.
I could only find one poll on the subject that is more recent, and it appears in the subscribers-only Wall Street Journal, so I have none of the all-important details. But here’s mention of it. In the new poll, 56% favor a withdrawal date, a very slight increase over February’s poll considering the incessant drumbeat of despair. But the summary doesn’t mention the breakdown of the timetable favored, and it’s quite possible that it’s similar to that of the earlier poll. And hmmm, that Oct. 1 deadline set by the House is only five months away.
Is it possible that the Democratic leadership is miscalculating when it figures its actions are a sure-fire crowd-pleaser and vote-getter? Perhaps.
Polls, of course, are notoriously unreliable, but despite their well-known flaws they’re the best tool we have for gauging the true extent of Democratic support. One indisputable fact, however, is that Congressional support for the Democratic position (which, of course, is not supported by all Democrats in Congress, and is supported by a few Republicans) is weak, as well.
What was the vote count on this bill in the House? 218 pro, 210 con. A majority is a majority, I suppose, and “passed” is “passed.” But no wonder it’s not veto-proof; this barely made it through.
The Congressional situation for the Vietnam pullout was very different indeed. I can’t find a record of the actual vote in late 1974 that effectively ended funding for the South Vietnamese, and thus, the war (here’s President Ford’s reaction to it). But at the time of the bill’s passage, the composition of the House was 242 Democrat and 192 Republican, and support was hardly limited to Democrats (to the best of my recollection).
Contrast that 50-person Democratic margin to today’s 31-person one. Even more importantly, an election had just occurred in late 1974 at the time the funding was cut, and a new Congress was about to be installed. This new Congress would be Democratic by one of the largest margins in history: 291 to 144, or a surplus of 147 Democratic votes. Bucking this overwhelming tide was hopeless, and Ford knew it (similar figures for the Senate of the time were 56/42 for the years 1973-1975, and 60/38 for the incoming Senate of 1975-1977. The present Senate, in contrast, is quite equally divided.)
The members of Congress who voted for a Vietnam pullout knew their votes had teeth and that President Ford was powerless to stop them. Whether or not you approve of what they did (and I do not, although I did at the time), their acts were not a cynical ploy nor a largely political battle against Ford himself. Their battle against the Republican President, Nixon, had already been won, with his full cooperation via Watergate.