Senator John Kerry-McClellan
There is a striking historical parallel between this election and the election of 1864. In both instances, the United States fought in a deeply divisive war that appeared the depths of folly to some, and to others the summit of necessity. Both elections were contested between plain-spoken incumbents of simple appearance and bearing, whose rhetoric tended to the spiritual, and whose themes were liberty and resolve, and challengers who ran on anti-war platforms under the protection of checkered histories as military officers.
In 1864, it was Abraham Lincoln, probably the most reviled leader in American history, certainly the most divisive, leading the country into a war that some believed far too costly to be fought. His position as President was challenged in light of his slim electoral majority, the plurality of his election, and the deep and abiding hatred felt for him by his opponents, who felt cheated by his victory, propelled as it was by a anti-Lincoln-vote split between Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge, and John Bell.
His opponent in 1864, General George McClellan, ran as a war hero, despite having been among those most responsible for the Union's inability to emerge victorious early in the war. Under McClellan's leadership, the Union army proved unwilling to engage fully, to bring its superior forces to bear against the rebel armies. It was this attitude that led to McClellan's removal after more than a year of fighting to a stalemate in battle after battle, sacrificing countless men to indecision rather than facing the casualties necessary to win the war decisively. McClellan ran as a peace candidate in a Democratic Party deeply divided over the Civil War, but whose hatred of Lincoln ran deep enough to paper over their divide, and neglect the deficiencies of the feckless McClellan.
But why would the Democrats choose a leader like McClellan, a soldier with no victories to his name? For that, I turn to Frederick Francis Cook in his 1910 book Bygone Days in Chicago,
So far as the leaders are concerned, they probably argued like this: "one of our own sort would stand no chance with the masses. We must have a soldier; but a successful one would not serve our purpose, nor is there any likelihood that we could get him to stand on the kind of platform we are determined to adopt." So it was McClellan or a civilian.
McClellan spent the campaign vacillating between his desire, as a soldier, to win the war, and his need as a Democrat to justify the removal of Lincoln in terms of the Politics of Failure.
The [Democrats'] platform not only declared the war a failure, but demanded that "immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities." But this part the candidate disavowed in his letter of acceptance. [ibid]
Kerry spoke in tonight's debate of the need for better armored Humvees, and more bulletproof vests before war could be undertaken. Leaving aside his vote against funding the war in Iraq, which would have denied funding for the very supplies he recommended, this statement provides a clear example of Kerry's McClellan-esque viewpoint on war. It would seem that having the best equipped, best trained military in the world is not sufficient to go into battle. Kerry, like McClellan, demands that we must approach the theoretical limits of preparedness before action is taken.
Ultimately, Lincoln won a decisive victory over McClellan for one reason: Sherman's march to the sea. Does this mean we'll see a major offensive, with tangible reports of victory coming out of Iraq over the course of the next few weeks? Hmmmm....