Pop quiz: It’s an election year. America is in the midst of a foreign war that is unpopular at home. The incumbent president is from the state of Texas. He had Congress authorize troops under less-than-truthful circumstances, but he is not running for re-election. The opposing party is promising to end the war and bring the troops home.
What year is it?
If you said 1968 or 2008, you would be right on both counts.
Of course, there are differences. First, there is no draft. Second, while people oppose the war, there are no large-scale demonstrations, nor is there a movement on college campuses.
The blog world has a number of reports comparing these two years, most of which analyze the actions of the incumbent president or compare the Vietnam War with the Iraq War. These are great subjects for debate, but I’m more concerned with the campaign parallels.
The best I found was by William Danvers, who wrote for The Globalist in March of 2007:
What the United States is facing today with respect to the war in Iraq offers the presidential candidates some of the tough choices that the candidates in 1968 faced. The irony is the reversal in the positions of the Democrats and Republicans between then and now. Then, the Democrats ran the White House, and the Republicans were able to stake out their own ground with respect to the war.
Now, Republicans control the White House, and Democrats are in a position to move things in a new direction with regard to Iraq.
Current leading candidates among Republicans have all embraced President Bush’s surge policy in Iraq. Like Hubert Humphrey in 1968, they are seen as the president’s heirs on the issue. Success in Iraq will thus greatly enhance the chances of the Republican nominee in the 2008 presidential race — while failure there would have the opposite effect.
On the Democratic side, there are shades of difference between what ought to be done with respect to strategy and tactics, but the common goal is consistent — getting the United States out of Iraq. They are staking their future on President Bush’s policy not succeeding.
Still, I can see a lot of differences between the two election years:
- The Draft:
Yes, in 1968 the United States used the draft to build it’s armies for Vietnam. In 2008, American armed forces are completely voluntary. This difference has softened the edge of the opposition here at home.
- The Economy:
In 1968, the United States had a trade surplus – making the US a major exporter in the world. In 2008, the U.S. has tremendous trade deficits, importing far more than we export. Unemployment was higher in 1968, and the dollar was stronger.
- The Cold War:
In 1968, the Soviet Union and China were supplying communist forces in Vietnam. In 2008, the U.S. is the only super power, but Iran is helping the insurgents.
- The nature of the conflict overseas:
In 1968, the US was in a full-scale war that started with the U.S. providing assistance to South Vietnam. In 2008, the U.S. is providing assistance to Iraq after the end of a full-scale war. This difference also softens the opposition.
- Party Unity:
In 1968, Robert Kennedy campaigned on ending the war more than even Nixon did. Humphries, as Johnson’s Vice President, could not be as openly critical of the war. In fact, if not for Kennedy’s assassination, we might not be able to make this comparison at all — as both candidates would have campaigned in the fall of 1968 to end the Vietnam War.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Iraq will be the single most important issue in the 2008 election. It will be more important than social and domestic issues. If conditions in Iraq improve, enough to start the process of bringing troops home, it will benefit Republicans. However, if Iraq remains status quo, you can expect the Democratic nominee to win going away.
After the election is complete, then we can more accurately compare 1968 and 2008, to see how the differences and similarities affected the nation’s choices for president.